Policies ensure futures
Insurance protects top college athletes
Robbi Pickeral, Staff Writer
CHARLOTTE - North Carolina forward Tyler Hansbrough doesn't worry about his NBA future despite being bruised, nicked, bloodied -- and sometimes broken -- by his aggressive style of play.
"I think it does concern my parents at times, though,'' he said.
Which is why the All-America is one of three Tar Heels starters, along with point guard Ty Lawson and shooting guard Wayne Ellington, who has a special insurance policy that protects him in the case of a career-ending injury.
"I don't even want to think about, talk about, the possibility of him getting seriously hurt,'' said Gene Hansbrough, who first took out a policy on his son when Tyler was a senior in high school. "But it does give him some level of protection to fall back on, just in case."
The investment is expensive. Once they leave school, players get bills for premiums usually in the range of $20,000, although they can top $50,000. And the protection rarely pays off, mostly because of medical advances and the limited instances of devastating injuries.
Still, the insurance has become as standard as autograph requests and ESPN highlights for elite college athletes who stand to make millions in the pros.
Hansbrough, a junior, originally was insured by Lloyd's of London, but he switched to an NCAA-sponsored program during his freshman season, his father said. His policy is worth close to $4.4 million, the NCAA's current maximum for men's basketball players. Ellington and Lawson, both sophomores, also became eligible and signed up for policies through the NCAA during their freshman seasons. Their parents declined to disclose the amounts of their policies, but even players projected to be chosen near the bottom of the first round of the NBA Draft are eligible for $500,000 policies.
Eventually, UNC forwards Deon Thompson and Danny Green could be candidates. On top 10 teams, it's not unusual for multiple players to be insured, said Keith Lerner, an insurance underwriter and CEO of Total Planning in Gainesville, Fla.
"There won't be a player drafted in the first round this year that doesn't have insurance," predicted Lerner, who has been in business 20 years. "... These are guys who are going to be making millions in the NBA. So it makes business sense to protect that. ... The cost will come out of their first paycheck."
A variety of reasons
Insurance policies have been available through private underwriters for decades.
The NCAA launched its Exceptional Student-Athlete Disability Insurance program in 1990 for men's basketball and football players. Baseball was added in 1991, hockey in 1993 and women's basketball in 1998.
The reason for the program isn't to protect student-athletes' pro careers but to safeguard their college ones, said Juanita Sheely, the NCAA's manager of travel and insurance.
"Back in its original inception, the idea was to help get agents out of the mix," Sheely said.
"Agents would promise, 'I will get you this insurance coverage if you sign with me.' And immediately, if there was any kind of agreement there, the student-athlete lost his eligibility."
One company, HCC Specialty Underwriters of Wakefield, Mass., is the administrator of the program and also handles other insurance needs for the NCAA, including protecting its signature event of the year -- the men's basketball tournament -- in the case of disruptions, cancellations or other trouble.
Roughly 100 to 150 athletes per year have the insurance at any one time, Sheely said. And at certain points in the year, as many as 40 basketball players can be in the program, said Jeff Stanley, senior sports underwriter at HCC.
Eligibility and the amount of coverage are based on projected draft status.
Football players are eligible for up to $3 million of insurance if they are projected to go in the first three rounds. Men's basketball players can get up to $4.4 million if they have top-five potential.
Which players are eligible and for how much is determined in large part by several confidential scouting services.
"We try to base our coverage on 50 to 60 percent of their after-tax salary on their contract, only for the first two years,'' Sheely said. "We can't include any bonuses or endorsements, because we don't know exactly what those will be."
Projecting when, or whether, athletes will be drafted is not an exact science, however. UNC coach Roy Williams said that in September 2004, the school applied to get the insurance for center Sean May. The junior, who went on to become MVP of the Final Four, was denied.
"They wouldn't approve it because they weren't comfortable saying he was going to be a first-round draft choice,'' Williams said. "And then 10 months later, he was the [13th] pick in the draft. So it's also a deal where everyone's not perfect."
Security at a price
For those who are approved, NCAA premiums cost about $6,000 per year (plus interest), per $1 million of coverage.
UNC encourages Tar Heels who want insurance to go with the NCAA program, UNC senior associate athletic director Larry Gallo said, to make sure the players stay in compliance with NCAA rules. But it isn't required.
Players who choose to go with private insurance companies and banks outside the NCAA program must still check in with their school's compliance office to make sure their interest rates and payment schedules are within the rules. But there are benefits.
Through Lerner's company, Lloyd's of London offers policies worth up to $12.5 million for projected top NBA draft picks, almost three times more than the NCAA allows for basketball players. Those premiums cost more -- usually $8,000 to $10,000 per year for every $1 million of coverage. But for about double that bill, a rider can be added to the policy that also protects an athlete's draft status -- meaning that if he falls from his projected draft status because of injury, he still could be paid.
The NCAA's policy pays out only if an injury is so catastrophic it ends the athlete's chances at any pro career.
Either way, payouts are rare. Stanley, of HCC, estimated that only about five claims had been paid under the ESDI program in the past seven or eight years. Lerner's company has paid twice, to a football player and to a hockey player.
Buying peace of mind
But business is still booming. Only about 10 percent of Lerner's policy-holders are basketball players, but he said hoops interest has increased since the NBA passed the 19-and-under rule, eliminating almost all prep players from jumping straight to the NBA.
"I've gotten a lot more calls from parents, because they anticipate their son only being in college a year -- and they want him to be protected,'' said Lerner, who insures athletes throughout the ACC, SEC and Big East.
"There are even kids in high school [taking out policies],'' he added. "Those are still few and far between, ... but it's happening more than it used to."
Hansbrough was one of those kids who qualified for a private policy when he was a McDonald's All American at Poplar Bluff (Mo.) High.
Seeing the aggressive way he played and anticipating a possible pro future, his father had no qualms about insuring him then -- or now -- despite the expense.
Lawson's mother, Jackie, did not want to comment on her son's involvement in the insurance program. But Ellington's dad, Wayne Sr., lauded the opportunity to buy insurance as "a good business decision."
"It does help take the pressure off kids to come out early, or think that they should come out early, because they're scared that they may get hurt ... especially the kids with no financial pressures,'' he said.
Wayne Ellington Sr. said his son will evaluate all his options after this season. Meanwhile, Gene Hansbrough said he doesn't anticipate that having the policy will affect whether his son leaves school early for the NBA. Tyler Hansbrough has said the biggest factor will be whether UNC wins a national title.
To that end, No. 1 seed UNC will play fourth-seeded Washington State in the NCAA's round of 16 tonight.
"For Tyler, playing is not about the money,'' Gene Hansbrough said. "He's a pretty frugal guy; the most he spends on is food. He just wants to win.
"But it [the insurance] gives me a little bit of piece of mind. I love the way he plays, I love how hard he plays. But every time he goes down, I hold my breath till he gets back up."