The devastating hit on Willis McGahee’s left knee was potentially life-altering -- not only for Miami’s star running back, but for underclassmen like him who had to decide by Wednesday whether to declare themselves eligible for the NFL draft.
The hit by Ohio State’s Will Allen on McGahee in the fourth quarter of the Fiesta Bowl has reverberated through the college football landscape.
McGahee’s knee was smashed backward into a near-V shape, ending a sophomore season that included 1,753 rushing yards, 28 touchdowns, All-American stature and a fourth-place showing in Heisman Trophy voting.
Worse, his opportunity to become a first-round NFL draft pick appears doomed. He sustained two torn knee ligaments and has been told he probably won’t be able to run until the summer.
The haunting lessons: Invincibility doesn’t exist in football; and nothing, including the notion that first-round locks like McGahee will earn millions of dollars in the NFL, is guaranteed.
Juanita Sheely, the NCAA’s insurance coordinator, received a panicked e-mail and several other forms of communication since McGahee crumbled to the turf. In one, a desperate, confused junior wanted to know if the NCAA could provide him an alternative to a premature move to the NFL under its exceptional student-athlete disability insurance plan.
“If I can’t get the insurance,” he wrote, “I’m turning pro.”
Sheely worked feverishly to give the young man an answer, devoting time previously budgeted for her NCAA convention commitments.
She canvassed three NFL scouts for their opinions on whether the player would be worthy of being selected in the draft’s first three rounds -- a prerequisite for exceptional student-athlete policy approval -- and delivered her response to the player on Tuesday.
She would not divulge the player’s decision, but confirmed he met the criteria for a policy.
As of Wednesday, 33 underclassmen had declared for the NFL draft.
First-year NCAA President Myles Brand lamented the loss of college players with a hint of regret.
“Some student-athletes will want to jump to the pros quickly because they know they won’t have very long careers,” Brand said. “I have faced that with some of my students [as president at Indiana University and the University of Oregon]. I’ve said, ‘I understand why you’re doing this and I can’t in good conscience tell you not to leave. But do promise me to come back to school and finish your education; you need that to best understand what it is to be a strong citizen and a productive member of society.’ That said, I understand the reality of the situation.”
Noting the absence of the kind of financial assurances that might keep gifted underclassmen in college, Sheely said the NCAA’s agents and amateurism subcommittee crafted an amateurism deregulation package two years ago.
The package proposed that the NCAA pay the premiums required for exceptional student-athlete policies and allow those deemed exceptional to take out a low-interest $20,000 loan for everyday expenses. The proposal reached the NCAA board of directors in April, but it was tabled.
“We couldn’t settle on the combination [of the insurance and the loan],” said David Berst, NCAA Division I chief of staff. “A broader evaluation of the insurance issues is necessary. It’s possible it will [become reality] but discussions still need to take place.”
An NCAA source said several football coaches criticized the plan, contending the $20,000 loan element would create rifts in the locker room.
Since it took effect in 1990, the exceptional student-athlete insurance plan has grown to cover football players who pro scouts project will be picked in the first three rounds of the NFL draft. Additionally, projected first-round picks in the NBA and WNBA and baseball and all men’s hockey players predicted to be chosen in the first three rounds of the NHL draft are eligible for coverage ranging from $500,000 (for third-round NFL picks) to more than $4 million (for top NBA picks).
“We don’t want the student-athletes to feel they have no options,” Sheely said. “We want them to have the tools to decide what is best for their lives.”
Student-athletes are responsible for paying the premiums to the association’s insurer, ASU International. The premiums cost an estimated $10,000 for $1 million in coverage and $25,000 for a $3-million policy -- the maximum coverage allowed for football players.
Through an NCAA agreement with Cincinnati-based U.S. Bank, athletes can secure loans to pay the premiums at a rate 1% above the prime rate. The loans are due when the athlete turns professional or exhausts his collegiate eligibility.
The NCAA pays a $9.2-million annual premium to Mutual of Omaha for a catastrophic health plan earmarked for full medical coverage of athletes who endure injuries -- like McGahee’s -- in practice or a game.
Luckily for McGahee, he had a Florida insurance agent arrange for his purchase of a $2.5-million policy with Lloyd’s of London hours before the national championship game. If he is unable to play more than three games in the NFL, he can collect on the policy. McGahee announced Tuesday that he would make himself available in the NFL draft.
Sheely said some student-athletes make outside deals such as McGahee’s, either because they are not aware of the NCAA elite athlete policy or because the NCAA is conservative in its dollar assessments of talent. Heisman-winning quarterback Carson Palmer of USC also secured a Lloyd’s of London policy.
Membership in the elite athlete plan ranges between 70 to 100 athletes, with most policies typically written during a junior’s active playing season, Sheely said.
“We have to be cautious in the dollar amounts,” Sheely said. “What if the student-athlete has a bad year after we cover them? If they end up on a practice squad and don’t make a lot of money, they’re on the hook for a large loan. We’re looking out for their welfare. Everyone might like to think they are the No. 1 pick, but there’s no way there can be 300 No. 1 picks.”
The annual run depletion of football underclassmen to the NFL-- 27 were drafted in 2002 -- is an obvious indicator that standout athletes aren’t being overwhelmed by NCAA strategies to keep them in college.
This year’s outgoing crop includes players such as Sugar Bowl MVP Musa Smith of Georgia, Colorado running back Chris Brown, (1,841 yards rushing), Oregon running back Onterrio Smith, Miami receiver Andre Johnson, Michigan State wide receiver Charles Rogers and Florida quarterback Rex Grossman.
A member of the NCAA board of directors assessed the situation bluntly: “I don’t think they are leaving because there’s not enough insurance. They’re leaving because there’s millions of dollars out there.”
One of the marquee underclassmen who chose to stay in school is Texas wide receiver Roy Williams.
“They say ‘Why is he staying? He should take the money and run,’ Williams told the Associated Press on Wednesday. “Money is not an issue to me and my family.”
Williams did concede that he was bothered by McGahee’s injury and had secured a $3-million insurance policy.
Michael Aguirre, chairman of the NCAA Division I student-athlete advisory committee and a former football player at Arizona State, said the idea of an NCAA-funded elite athlete insurance policy is “a difficult issue. I don’t think we advocate student-athletes blatantly leaving school early, but when you start putting costs on things ... philosophically, it sounds good. Realistically, these are difficult times and when you start talking about spending additional money, you’ve got to ask, ‘Where does that money come from?’ The NCAA does not have infinite funds. I don’t think this will ever happen.”
Brand said former NCAA president Cedric Dempsey designated $750 million of the $6-billion men’s and women’s basketball television deal with CBS and ESPN for student welfare issues.
If the NCAA provided $1 million in coverage for all those it presently considers exceptional athletes, it would cost an estimated $2.02 million annually.
Sheely said there have been suggestions to increase the insurance available -- at the athletes’ expense.
“The last thing I want to do is talk a guy into staying and then something like [McGahee’s injury] happens and he blames you,” Georgia Coach Mark Richt told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.