CHICAGO — After weighing his options in December, tailback Melvin Gordon decided to bypass the NFL draft and return to the University of Wisconsin for his junior season.
It was a difficult decision that involved many factors — academic, athletic, financial — for a player who was projected to be taken in the first three rounds of the NFL draft. As it played out, the pro scouts didn’t like much about the 2014 running back class once they studied it and Gordon might well have been the No. 1 back taken, but no one knew that at the time he made his decision.
Once the decision was made, however, UW knew it would have a preseason candidate for the Heisman Trophy returning at the tailback position, which was a huge boost for the program heading into coach Gary Andersen’s second year. But if Gordon did that for the Badgers, it’s fair to ask — given the current national debate over providing more benefits to student-athletes — what the Badgers are doing for him.
Quite a bit, it turns out.
No, there is no Montee Ball-like Heisman Trophy campaign for Gordon going into the start of fall camp. But in line with an NCAA rule that some schools might not even be aware of, UW paid for an insurance policy that will protect Gordon should he be injured this season.
UW athletic director Barry Alvarez confirmed Monday that Gordon’s insurance premiums were paid by UW out of its Student Opportunity Fund. Per NCAA mandate, each school has such an assistance fund for student-athletes that can be used at the school’s discretion to cover, say, post-eligibility financial aid or the cost of a student-athlete traveling home in the event of an emergency.
Alvarez said Gordon’s insurance cost the school “in the range” of $27,000 to $28,000 for the upcoming season.
“We do a lot with that SOF Fund as far as helping student-athletes, as all schools do,” Alvarez said. “You always hear about how you take advantage and you exploit the student-athletes, but you rarely read where you help them. We felt and I felt that this was a good use of that fund.”
It’s all above board, too. UW director of compliance Katie Smith was heavily involved in the process at every turn.
“We felt this was a very unique situation,” Alvarez said. “Maybe one of the better players in the country. It was a need-based situation. We thought unique enough where we could use our SOF Fund money to pay for his insurance policy.”
Smith said every school has a different philosophy on how to divvy up its student-athlete assistance money, which at big-time athletic schools can be in excess of $300,000.
“We extend it to kids in need,” she said.
A rule of thumb, according to Smith, is that student-athletes who qualify for federal Pell Grant assistance can qualify for SOF money on the basis of need. Exceptions are made for other student-athletes based on demonstrated need.
UW has had student-athletes in the past who purchased injury insurance on their own. However, many premier athletes don’t have the family resources to pay the premiums.
The Badgers aren’t alone in taking advantage of this rule, either. Texas A&M paid more than $50,000 this year for insurance to cover offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi, who was projected as a possible first-round pick. Ogbuehi told Fox Sports he wouldn’t have been able to afford insurance on his own and probably would have turned pro had his school not offered financial assistance.
Asked Tuesday if UW’s decision to foot his insurance bill influenced his decision to stay, Gordon said, “No, that had nothing to do with it.”
The NCAA has offered student-athletes who are likely to be early draft picks in high-profile sports the ability to purchase injury insurance for almost 25 years. There are two types of policies allowed: one that covers permanent disability from career-ending injuries, and one that covers loss of value should a player who is projected in a certain round get picked later due to injury or illness.
Fox Sports reported former USC wide receiver Marqise Lee had a “robust” loss-of-value policy, then injured his leg in 2013 and fell out of the first round. It said Lee is in line to collect more than $5 million based on the difference between his actual signing bonus and the value of this year’s first-round average.
Gordon, who is from Kenosha, said his mother handled the matter for the family and that he had little to do with the process.
“It wasn’t really a big deal for me,” he said. “They called my mom about it and she asked me if I wanted to get in it. Some people thought it would be good, and I said OK. I didn’t know anything about it.”
There are, of course, potential problems with a school paying for insurance for a top athlete. UW was very concerned about setting a precedent with such an arrangement. It’s also not hard to see how schools could abuse the rule and use such payments as a recruiting incentive.
“I think it depends on the scenario and situation and where the kid sits,” Andersen said. “You would sure hate to have him not protected some sort of way.”
Given the current climate in college sports, that seems like a reasonable approach.