COLORADO’S PLAYERS WEREN’T INSURED. THEN TRAVIS HUNTER GOT HURT

 

COLORADO’S PLAYERS WEREN’T INSURED. THEN TRAVIS HUNTER GOT HURT

Deion Sanders instantly brought an NFL atmosphere to Boulder, but amid the hype, the team’s top pro prospects didn’t have injury coverage.

When Colorado star Travis Hunter absorbed a brutal late hit and was sent to the hospital during the Buffaloes’ nationally televised game against Colorado State on Sept. 16, the college football world wondered not only about his immediate health, but about his long-term career. The dynamic and versatile Hunter, whom coach Deion Sanders deemed a potential No. 1 NFL draft pick at either wide receiver or defensive back, suddenly seemed at risk of losing millions of future dollars. And while NCAA athletes of Hunter’s caliber are often insured to hedge against a potentially life-altering moment like this one, Hunter wasn’t.

Hunter, Sportico has learned, is still in the process of obtaining permanent total disability and critical injury coverage, income protection that has become increasingly common among the sport’s best NFL prospects. The 20-year-old, who plays both offense and defense, continues to be sidelined from a lacerated liver caused by the hit.

According to multiple people familiar with the situation, neither Hunter nor any other Colorado Buffaloes—college football’s current viral story thanks to the reality-show allure of their head coach—were covered prior to the Colorado State game. That included quarterback Shedeur Sanders, Deion’s son, a potential top-10 pick in next year’s NFL Draft.

It is unclear to what extent Hunter or his representatives have explored insurance options on his own. While it is ultimately the athlete’s decision whether to obtain insurance, schools generally work to facilitate policies for their top football and basketball players, and often finance the premiums. Colorado, like a number of other FBS schools, has contracted over the last few years with an athlete injury insurance consultant, David Brookbank, who works with brokers and cover holders to present policy options to insurable players.

However, sources say, at Deion Sanders’ behest, Hunter and Sheduer Sanders have eschewed Brookbank’s services to instead work directly with one particular broker: Matthew Vuckovich of Paradigm Gilbert, a California-based insurance agency that is relatively unknown in the world of college sports. The firm is currently being sued by a former MLB pitcher over a $10 million policy that failed to pay out.

Using Paradigm Gilbert, Shedeur Sanders, according to those sources, was eventually insured ahead of last weekend’s loss at Oregon, while two other players—wide receivers Xavier Weaver and Jimmy Horn Jr.—were bound with coverage this week, using another broker that had a preexisting relationship with the school. Colorado says it is paying for all three policies and appears to be willing to pay for Hunter, who is currently working through the application process with Paradigm Gilbert. Historically, insurance companies will not cover an injured athlete until they have been cleared to play.

Asked why the CU players waited longer than necessary to obtain coverage, a Colorado spokesperson told Sportico in a statement: “This is an incredibly important decision for student-athletes and the process can be complicated as they weigh their options.” Deion Sanders, Shedeur Sanders and Hunter did not respond to a request for comment made through the school, and a separate message sent to Hunter’s student email address went unreturned.

Colorado is in the midst of an abrupt transformation from Power Five also-ran to the NCAA’s most-hyped program. The Buffaloes were 1-11 last year and haven’t won a bowl game in nearly 20 years. The school’s most recent first-round NFL pick, cornerback Jimmy Smith, had an 11-year pro career and is now retired. The last time Colorado paid to insure a football player was in 2019, when it arranged for a policy for receiver Laviska Shenault Jr., who now plays for the Carolina Panthers.

Sanders, who was hired with money the school admitted it didn’t yet have, reversed the program’s fortunes nearly overnight. The Buffaloes sold out their spring game in April, and then sold out their entire home football slate. TV ratings for Colorado games are setting records, and Buffs merchandise is selling out. Two weeks ago, both the ESPN and Fox Sports pregame shows traveled to Boulder to capitalize on the frenzy surrounding the team, setting up their stages just 300 yards from one another.

In his first meeting with players, Sanders told his team, “I’m bringing my luggage with me,” a metaphor for how he would put his own stamp on the Buffaloes program. That quotation went viral because the speech was professionally filmed and posted online—another hallmark of the Sanders era, where the Buffaloes are part football team and part social media fishbowl. Dozens of players transferred out, and more than 50 transferred in, including players already on NFL draft boards. In a tight window, Sanders landed Colorado’s best recruiting class in 15 years.

The underlying permanent total disability (PTD) policy pays out in the event an athlete suffers a career-ending injury that is not excluded from the terms. Critical injury (CI) coverage, which has gained increasing popularity in recent years, offers protection to athletes projected to land within a certain range of the NFL Draft.

If insured players suffer specific injuries that require surgery or lead to disablement for certain time periods, the benefits are triggered. Typically, ailments such as high-grade ligament tears, torn rotator cuffs or heart attacks can lead to $250,000 in benefits.

The Colorado spokesperson, who, on account of educational privacy laws, declined to identify the specific players covered, said as of Thursday the school was  paying for two $2 million PTD policies with $250,000 critical riders, and one $5 million PTD policy with a $250,000 CI rider. (Shedeur Sanders is currently considered to be a better NFL prospect than Weaver or Horn.)

PTD policies typically cost between $5,000 to $7,000 per million of coverage, while critical injury riders can tack on an additional $15,000 to $20,000.

According to the spokesperson, Colorado has never had more than two football players insured in the same season. Now it has three and will soon have a fourth.

While Hunter is still uninsured, sources say he is expected to have a policy in place before he returns to the field. The consequence of having waited is that his liver injury will almost assuredly be excluded from any PTD he signs now, according to insurance experts. Even if he had CI coverage going into the Colorado State game, the liver injury he suffered may not have counted toward a payout. (In any case, it would have been covered under PTD.)

Weaver and Horn, sources say, have been working through David Brookbank, who declined to comment when reached by phone.

While it wasn’t necessarily unusual for Hunter to go into the season without an underlying PTD policy at the start of the season—given the fact the sophomore is not draft-eligible this year—industry experts describe it as a major oversight that he had not been immediately insured following his breakout performance in Colorado’s 45-42 upset victory over then No. 17-ranked TCU on Sep. 3.

That game thrust the team into the national spotlight, elevating both Shedeur Sanders, who threw for 510 yards, and Hunter, who played an eye-opening 144 combined snaps on offense and defense. Following the win, Deion Sanders went on both Undisputed and The Pat McAfee Show, with the prediction Hunter would eventually go into the NFL as the top draft pick, “on both sides of the ball.”

Lloyd’s of London also took note, according to sources, agreeing to underwrite millions of dollars more of coverage for both players in the event they suffered career-ending injuries.

And yet, they continued to be uninsured in Colorado’s next two games, at home against Nebraska on Sept. 9 and against Colorado State a week later, when Hunter was hospitalized following the controversial late hit in the first quarter.

According to insurance experts, any PTD coverage Hunter now obtains will likely include an exclusion for his liver, meaning that the policies would not pay out if the insurance company deemed his work loss owed to the trauma the organ sustained earlier this month.

Paradigm Gilbert was co-founded by former sports agent Dennis Gilbert, who made a name representing a number of Major League Baseball stars in the 1980s and 1990s. The basis of Deion Sanders’ connection to Paradigm Gilbert or Vuckovich is unclear, as are the reasons the coach may have wanted his players’ to use that broker. (Sanders did not answer a question about his relationship with Paradigm Gilbert sent through a Colorado spokesperson).

Former MLB pitcher Matt Garza’s suit against Paradigm Gilbert, which was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court in 2021, accuses the firm and a related entity, Gilbert Insurance Group, of breach of duties by failing to conduct proper due diligence about the pitcher’s medical history and then submitting a policy application that was 65% incomplete to Lloyd’s of London. The $10 million policy cost Garza $190,000, according to his suit. After tearing his labrum during an on-field collusion in 2018, Garza submitted a disability claim that was denied on account of his original application being incomplete and inaccurate.

In addition to Paradigm Gilbert, Garza sued Lloyd’s of London and International Speciality Insurance (ISI), the policy’s controversial cover holder, which has been sued by a number of athletes over policies that didn’t pay out. Paradigm Gilbert, in its pleadings, has argued that it did not have a duty to “independently investigate information” in the application and should have “no conceivable liability.”

“Since Gilbert had no common law obligation to uncover Garza’s misrepresentations and assumed no duty to do so, Garza’s negligence claim against Gilbert fails as a matter of law,” the company stated in its pending motion for summary judgment.

The litigation is currently in the discovery phase with a trial date set for July 2024.

Vuckovich, a Paradigm Gilbert partner who was not involved with Garza, had in recent years reached out to a number of schools to insure college athletes, but appeared to have made little inroads before now. In addition to his work with Paradigm Gilbert, Vuckovich also runs a firm that specializes in insurance and other kinds of professional advisory services for doctors and surgeons.

When reached by phone this week, Vuckovich  told Sportico that he first wanted to get clearance to speak from Colorado’s athletic director, but then did not respond to subsequent messages. Vuckovich and Dennis Gilbert also did not respond to a list of written questions sent by email.

Several Lloyd’s coverholders and other insurance agents for NCAA athletes said  they had never done business with Paradigm Gilbert and were not aware of any others who had.

Colorado’s athletic officials and football stars are not the only people trying to navigate the fraught world of disability insurance.

For decades, schools were allowed to help pay or supplement the cost of athlete injury insurance, but only with monies from their NCAA Student Assistance Funds. Separately, the NCAA has allowed athletes to take out loans against their future pro earnings to pay for policies, though few have gone this route.

An insurance spending arms race took off in the mid-2010s, when it was reported that Florida State had paid up to $60,000 so that its star quarterback, Jameis Winston, could obtain a $10 million disability policy with a loss-of-value (LOV) rider. The LOV endorsement would cover potentially millions of dollars of lost revenue as a pro, if an injury Winston sustained in college sufficiently compromised his draft status.

At the same time, Texas A&M reportedly spent $50,000 for offensive lineman Cedric Ogbuehi’s injury coverage, as schools began spending more and more money on LOV coverage, in particular, leading to instability in the market. In 2021, Sportico published a series of stories about how the popularity of loss-of-value coverage had dramatically scaled in recent years.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2021 ruling in Alston v. NCAA that let schools provide more in “educational-related” benefits to their athletes, the association adopted a rule change in August 2022 allowing schools to pay for insurance premiums out of their athletic department’s general budget, and not just the student assistance fund. This has engendered increased spending among some top schools, say industry insiders, with some programs paying well over six figures for this line item alone. On the other hand, the dawning of name, image and likeness has likely constrained some of that spending, with the thinking that college stars are now financially positioned to take out their own insurance policies if they so choose.

It’s unclear when Hunter will suit up again for the Buffaloes. On Thursday, he posted a video of him and CSU defensive back Henry Blackburn, whose late hit landed Hunter in the hospital, bowling together.

Hunter is lobbying to play. After the Oregon loss, Sanders told the team that Hunter texted him saying, “I needed to play this week… I’m not taking no for an answer.” Sanders read the text to the team in a meeting, a video of which was posted to YouTube by Deion Sanders Jr.

“No, you ain’t ready,” Sanders said he replied to Hunter. “You’re going to change the game of football one day when you’re healthy and ready. Your future is brighter than mine ever would be and ever was. Relax and get healthy. I love you son.”

 

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