But these policies, meant to hedge against risk, are risky in themselves: None of these student-athletes is likely to ever collect a dime, even if they are hurt. These guarantees cover "permanent total disability," meaning only policyholders who are never able set foot on a field or court again—not simply those who suffer injuries that may reduce their earning potential—can file a claim. With relation to auto insurance, it's the equivalent of having to completely total your car before ever being eligible to receive a payout. Couple that with the prohibitive cost of buying a high-premium policies for these unpaid athletes, and you've got another dubious element in what many believe is an already-absurd amateur system.
Of the thousands of policies bought over the years, virtually no college athlete has successfully filed a disability insurance claim. Verdun said he couldn't think of any. In the last 15 years, only one player is publicly known to have benefited from this kind of coverage: former University of Florida defensive tackle Ed Chester, who was projected to be a first-round NFL draft pick in 1998 before blowing out his knee after returning as a senior. He never played again, collecting $1 million on a private policy that was obtained for $8,000.
Since its inception nearly a quarter century ago, the odds with the NCAA's program aren't much better. Much of the reason for this is that advancements in modern medicine make recovery from once perceived career-ending setbacks much more likely.
"The number of payments has been relatively small through the years," says Juanita Sheely, NCAA travel and insurance director, "probably less than a dozen, and that's primarily because in order to collect on the benefits, you have to be completely unable to play your sport. As medical technology has advanced, there's a lot of good rehab facilities and procedures out there that, except for the most dire of injuries, most of the time you can come back from it."
The University of Miami's Willis McGahee, for example, wrecked his knee in the 2002 Fiesta Bowl and would have collected on a $2.5 million policy, purchased just weeks before the career-threatening injury, had he ultimately been unable to return to the gridiron. South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore critically hurt his knee this past October, but still stands to be drafted come the end of the month. Likewise, Ware's compound fracture to his leg, a similar injury to the one that ended Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann's playing career in 1985, is now mostly thought of as repairable with surgery and proper rehab time.
Despite the low probability of payout, the fees for players are steep: The premiums for the NCAA's ESDI program, which has existed since 1990, vary by sport, position, and preexisting injuries, but cost upwards of $40,000. It's available to players projected as draft picks in the first three rounds for the NFL and NHL, and first-rounders for the NBA, MLB and, most recently, the WNBA. Between 100 and 120 athletes participate per season, a number that has stayed constant in recent years, according to the NCAA. Increasingly popular commercial underwriters like Lloyd's of London or Frenkel—whose policies may come with fewer restrictions than the NCAA's—can cost more.