Matt Barkley just turned down millions as a likely top-five pick in next April's NFL Draft in exchange for his senior season at USC, worth the value of his scholarship and the attendant benefits of being the campus hero for one more year. With the risk of injury hanging over his head, why roll the dice?
Sure, adoring co-eds have a certain allure, and Barkley is on the verge of a degree in communications. (Cue the "phony major" quip from "The Simpsons.") But the fact is, whatever Barkley is putting on the line by coming back to school, he's almost certain to have in good hands in the meantime.
College players who decide to forego an opportunity to be a top-50 selection in the NFL Draft typically purchase an insurance policy through the NCAA to protect their future. This gives assurance that if the player gets hurt during the season, he can recoup some of the potential earnings that a career of playing on Sundays would bring in.
The coverage can be worth millions, often based on the player's projected rookie contract.
Policies are available through the NCAA's Exception Student-Athlete Disability Insurance Program, which covers most potential first-round draft picks (players projected for the second and third rounds can also apply) who decide to return to school. The average policy reportedly goes in the neighborhood of $3 million, at an "astronomical" premium, according to Colt McCoy's dad, Brad, who helped Colt take out a policy that stood to pay $3 million to $5 million if he was seriously hurt after deciding to return for his senior season at Texas in 2009.
McCoy's friend and rival, Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford, took out a policy reportedly worth up to $10 million when he passed up a No. 1 projection the same year. The St. Louis Business Journal estimates Bradford and his family paid between $50,000 and $100,000 for a few months of coverage in '09, chump change compared to the $50 million guarantee he got from the St. Louis Rams after they drafted him No. 1 the following spring.
"They are looking to be protected against permanent total disability or career ending disabilities," said Scott Petersen, a principal in Petersen International Underwriters based in Valencia, Calif. "This is what we are offering for them at this time."
While Petersen can't name individual athletes who have taken advantage of policies through his company due to confidentiality clauses, he has noticed an interesting pattern emerge: It isn't just rising seniors who take advantage of the insurance policies. Petersen sees as many as 50 athletes any year, ranging from sophomores to seniors, who will gladly pay to protect the blindside of their careers.
Typical premiums are between $5,000 to $10,000 dollars, although Petersen has seen the dollar amount go as high as $150,000 dollars. The coverage is 24 hours a day, worldwide and covers both accidents and sickness.
Peterson notes, of course, that the premium must be paid for by the player (or his family) and no one else, or it would be a violation of NCAA rules.
For football players, the policy often expires August 1 — just in time for training camp — one of the reasons a drafted player often won't show up to camp until a contract is signed. It has nothing to do with motivation or wanting to be on the field with his future teammates: A player due millions has too much to lose through injury if he does not hold out.
There is always the question of whether the risk is really high enough to justify the cost of a protection. Former Rutgers head coach Terry Shea has mentored the likes of Sam Bradford, Matthew Stafford and Josh Freeman — all first-round picks who gave up their final year of eligibility — during their preparation for the draft, and says he doesn't see the value of the insurance policy.
"I challenge someone to research the track record of so-called high 'draftable' players who have been prevented a chance to make it in the NFL due to a fourth-year injury in college," said Shea, author of a book, "Eyes Up," on quarterback development. "This is the transparent dialogue that comes from agents applying the scare tactic onto the college athlete and his decision makers.
"As a former college coach, I would never have encouraged a player to invest in a policy and would not do so today. I would certainly encourage a player to remain for his final college season because I believe in the value of college football and what it does to create the whole individual."
It's an important question to consider: On average, Petersen says, his company only winds up paying one claim on an injured college athlete per year. Then again, it probably seems worth it if you're the one.
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Kristian Dyer is on Twitter: Follow him @KristianRDyer.