But it wasn’t that comparison between the two players that was most important from a broader perspective. Instead, it was a contrast between the two that should have been pointed out.
Tagovailoa suffered his hip dislocation, for which he will undergo surgery Monday, as a college football player. Jackson suffered his hip dislocation, which required surgery, in the NFL.
The NCAA, as it so callously reminded last month, doesn’t deem Tagovailoa, or any college athlete, an employee — no matter how many hours they log in their sport, how much blood (Tagovailoa was playing despite recently having ankle surgery) and sweat they spill for their team or how much revenue they generate for the college sports industrial complex. As a result, there was no workers’ compensation for Tagovailoa. Should he become slowed years later by his injured hip, as Jackson has become by his, he won’t find any long-term health care from Alabama or the NCAA.
Jackson, however, suffered his injury while rightfully recognized as a professional football player. In the NFL, every team receives a credit under the league’s salary cap to cover workers’ compensation costs. On top of that, long-term health care is available.
There is no question that college athletes such as Tagovailoa deserve a cut in remuneration of the hundreds of millions of dollars they generate that make millionaires of the athletic directors and coaches for whom they toil. But it is equally true — and arguably more important — that college athletes such as Tagovailoa who play collision or high-impact sports, which can produce devastating or debilitating injuries, warrant longer health-care guarantees than the current system affords them.
It is a fight in college sports that has been around nearly as long as that of demanding college athletes be paid. It is also the struggle that remains at the heart of the unfairness of college sports’ treatment of its athletes.
To be sure, it was a football player named Ernest Nemeth in the early 1950s who laid this bare. He played at Denver, got hurt and couldn’t suit up anymore. That meant he was in danger of not being able to have his college education paid for via his scholarship and campus jobs afforded him as a football player.
So, Nemeth filed a workers’ compensation claim against the university. He argued he was employed by the university to play football. The university said it was involved in the business of education, not football. The Supreme Court of Colorado ruled in Nemeth’s favor.
Some similar legal challenges followed at other colleges and universities, including that of Ray Dennison, an Army vet and father of three who in 1955 on the opening kickoff for the Fort Lewis A&M Aggies had his helmet collide with the kick returner’s knee. His skull shattered. He died the next day. His widow sued for workers’ comp, too.
This all caught the eye of Walter Byers, who was the NCAA’s first full-time employee then and soon its executive director. To protect schools and the association from further claims and lawsuits, Byers admitted in his 1995 memoir, “Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes,” that he “ . . . crafted the term student-athlete and . . . embedded [it] in all NCAA rules and interpretations” to emphasize to the public, media and courts that college players weren’t workers and colleges were not obliged to treat them as such.
The NCAA feels no more duty-bound to do so now, as it emphasized last month, than it did under Byers’s reign, which lasted until 1988. As the NCAA underscored last month, it makes a “clear . . . distinction between collegiate and professional opportunities . . . compensation for athletics performance or participation is impermissible . . . [and] student-athletes are students first and not employees of the university.”
Tagovailoa is luckier than Nemeth. Tagovailoa is a star, as standout an athlete as there is in college sports this year.
Fans of the worst NFL franchises started “Tank for Tua” campaigns this season, urging their teams to lose as much as possible to earn the top pick in next year’s draft and take Tagovailoa No. 1. Such high expectations made Tagovailoa eligible for special disability insurance from the NCAA to protect those expected to be drafted in the first round or two in some leagues, such as the NFL, against the loss of earnings because of injury in college.
Jackson played just four years in the NFL before the hip injury shut him down. He earned $6.1 million. But he played twice as long in Major League Baseball, including, amazingly, three seasons after his hip surgery. He earned $6.8 million playing baseball. His unique two-sport athleticism also earned him millions as a popular pitchman for Nike in the “Bo Knows” campaign.
Only time, healing and rehabilitation will tell if Tagovailoa ever reaps what he appeared to be on the cusp of earning. He should have been on the payroll at Alabama like Nick Saban, who this season will have taken home $7.5 million for coaching him.
But maybe Saban can provide some of the financial insurance rescue Tagovailoa can’t get as a mere college football player. After all, Saban is a pitchman for Aflac — you know, the insurance company with the duck that asks if you’re “hurt and can’t work” and promises to provide “help with expenses health insurance doesn’t cover.”