Insurance: Athletes Hedge Career Bets

When Dave Williams was catching 101 passes and was being chosen All-American at the University of Illinois last season, he didn't worry about a career-ending injury. But his father worried enough for both of them.

"One time my father made the comment that he wouldn't let me go back to school unless I got insurance," the wide receiver from Serra High in Gardena said from his home in Champaign, Ill. "I don't know how serious he was, but he said it."

National Football League scouts had said that Williams could be a first-round choice in their player draft this winter, and Williams realized that he would get hit hard five or six times a game during his senior year this fall.

So the 6-foot-4, 197-pound receiver began to consider a $1-million Lloyd's of London policy to protect against a career-ending injury.

Williams--whose brother, Oliver, and cousin, Phil Smith, are wide receivers for the Indianapolis Colts--mentioned his situation to his coach, Mike White, who said "he would find out the details (of the policy). . . . He knows the things I'll be doing."

Bought Protection

White recommended the insurance to Williams, who played a year at Harbor Junior College in Wilmington before transferring to Illinois, and to Illinois quarterback Jack Trudeau of Livermore, Calif., another potential No. 1 draft pick.

Last April both players borrowed more than $11,000 to buy the policy, which pays for a career-ending injury during the 15 months before each athlete attends his first professional training camp next summer.

Williams and Trudeau bought the same protection as athletes including University of Iowa quarterback Chuck Long and former University of Miami quarterback Bernie Kosar, who signed last week with Cleveland of the NFL.

Former University of Georgia running back Herschel Walker bought coverage in 1981 before joining the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League.

Although UCLA and USC officials say no players there have purchased the policies, their use is growing as athletes try to protect against the loss of increasingly lucrative salaries in professional sports.

The insurance is purchased by only the "top echelon of professional prospects who have proven value as far as professional (sports is concerned)," said John Leavens, director of the legislative services committee of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn.

The NCAA spurred the sale of the policies last January when it passed a rule that an athlete could buy them by borrowing money from a lending institution.

The NCAA hoped that the rule would keep star athletes in school for another year, especially basketball players who can sign up for the National Basketball Assn. draft after each season of college eligibility. Draft requirements in football and baseball are more stringent.

The NCAA prohibited coaches and agents from buying the insurance--coaches so they would not use it to keep athletes in school and agents so they would not use it to gain control over an athlete before the time in his career when it became legal.

The buying of insurance by college players coincides with a similar move among professionals.

As the Stakes Rise

Although golfer Arnold Palmer insured himself against a career-ending injury as early as the 1950s, many more athletes buy policies now as athletic salaries and the stakes of athletic careers escalate.

Player agents and insurance representatives say that many contracts in professional baseball and basketball are guaranteed, but that most football contracts are not, so that the policies can be particularly helpful to NFL players.

In baseball and basketball the policies are typically used by young players who have not yet signed long-term, guaranteed contracts.

"It's a good vehicle to guarantee protecting an athlete during a transitional period," said Ron Shapiro, the Baltimore agent for California Angels third baseman Doug DeCinces and others.

When the Baltimore Orioles visited Japan last winter, Shapiro took out a three-month policy on pitcher Mike Boddiker, 27, who won 20 games and lost only 11 in 1984, for $500,000, the anticipated worth of Boddiker's contract the following season.

Avoiding Jeopardy

Without such a policy, the athlete can be in jeopardy. Quarterback Bert Jones of the Rams retired in 1983 after an injury that required surgeons to remove a ruptured cervical disk and fuse two broken vertebrae in the neck area.

Jones was covered for a career-ending injury and collected, according to John Jemison, owner of Sports Insurance International Services in Houston, Tex. The policy paid $1 million, a source said.

A 1981 car accident paralyzed center Landon Turner and ended his career a few months after his University of Indiana team won the NCAA championship. Turner received minimal help from his own auto insurance policy and his father's hospital-medical coverage.

In 1978, a collision with Oakland defensive back Jack Tatum paralyzed New England Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley and ended his career.

The league agreed to pay the remainder of Stingley's medical and living expenses after workers' compensation and the NFL Players Assn. disability plan proved inadequate.

Although the new policies guard against such occurrences, some people think they contain a weakness.

"You only get paid off if you're permanently disabled and can't play the sport again," said Peter Johnson, vice president of the International Marketing Group in Cleveland, who represents tennis player Martina Navratilova and football player Herschel Walker.

Loss of Value

"Let's say you get injured in a post-season all-star game. You can play afterwards (but not as well) and your value goes down. You still can't cash in."

"What's probably needed is some type of program through the NCAA where all students get some type of disability," said George Andrews, a Chicago attorney who represents Magic Johnson of the Lakers.

Andrews notes that NCAA schools are required to keep injured student athletes on scholarship only for the year in which they are injured.

"I'm not saying take care of him for life," he said, "but there should be some kind of therapy and job retraining."

The policies, most of which are written by Lloyd's of London or State Mutual Life Assurance Company of America in Worcester, Mass., are based on elaborate statistics.

"We have gathered a fairly large data base on players," said Pete Eshelman, president of American Sports Underwriters Inc. of Worcester, Mass., which works with State Mutual Life. "In baseball we know at each age, and at each position for years of service, how many guys have gotten disabled."

Hard to Get Policies

The actuarial tables help companies decide when to issue policies, but young players may find it hard to buy them.

Trudeau, the Illinois quarterback, said he sat down with an insurance agent soon after the NCAA passed its new rule on insurance policies in January but took several months to reach a decision.

"It's expensive for a college kid," he said by telephone from the Illinois campus. "It's kind of hard to look at yourself spending that kind of money. I talked to a lot of people."

Williams, whose brother Steven will go to Illinois this fall as a freshman wide receiver from Serra High, worked with his friend Trudeau examining the policies.

The players, members of the Illinois team that lost to UCLA 45-9 in the 1984 Rose Bowl, checked out different possibilities and decided on the same day that they would go ahead.

"People said you got to take it easy here and there during the games (to avoid getting hurt)," Williams said. "Well, I wouldn't do that.

"I like making touchdowns and I like running the ball. If there's a case where you could go out of bounds or make 10 more yards, I'm going to make the 10 more yards.

"The only time I'm going to run out of bounds is if a gain is impossible. My coach would probably be shocked if he saw me run out of bounds."

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