Kevin Ware, Tyrone Prothro, and the O’Bannon Class-Action Lawsuit Against the NCAA

In Louisville’s Elite Eight game against Duke in this year’s NCAA basketball tournament, Kevin Ware famously went down on the court with a horrific compound fracture to his leg [WARNING: description of injury is graphic]:

With Louisville leading 21-17, Ware ran out to contest a three-point attempt by Tyler Thornton. Moments after Thornton made the shot, however, there was pandemonium on the court when Ware planted his leg, turned and suffered what looked like a broken bone.

“His bone was sticking out of his shin,” said Richard Pitino, Florida International’s head coach and former U of L assistant who recruited Ware for the Cards and was sitting about 25 feet from where injury happened.

Players and coaches on the team were extremely emotional, some breaking down in sobs.

Louisville went on to win that game and the entire tournament.

Ware was in front of the reporters the day after his successful surgery. He was on the sidelines cheering on his team in their semifinal and championship game. After they won the latter, he walked onto the court with the help of some cool looking crutches and they lowered the net so he could snip off the final piece.

The discussion about Ware then turned to his recovery and the possibility of him returning to play.

Ware himself has been tweeting out picture of himself working out:

Dave Zirin wrote about Ware’s long-term care:

“Going forward, we don’t know what’s going to happen in terms of medical expenses,” said Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, a group trying to organize NCAA athletes. “If Kevin has lifelong medical bills associated with his injury, he could be squarely responsible for this…These are things that are not guaranteed to players that are injured, and no matter how hard it might be for people to understand, that’s the truth. And that should change.” […]

As for Kevin Ware, he returned to Louisville this week, his coach by his side. Coach Pitino announced that he is healthy enough to be in Atlanta for the Final Four, cheering on his teammates. Ware is now a newly minted media star: a 21st century George Gipp with the benefit of having a story that’s actually true.Unfortunately the school won’t even say publicly, if rehab doesn’t go as planned, whether he’ll still have a scholarship waiting for him when he returns in the fall. The official word from Louisville is that the question is irrelevant because “doctors are expecting a full recovery.”

As soon as I heard about Ware’s injury and then saw a snapshot of it (I refuse to watch the video) my mind instantly went to Tyrone Prothro, a former University of Alabama wide receiver. And then when I read Zirin’s post about Ware’s future, it made me wonder what happened to Prothro.

Prothro is on a stretcher, his broken leg in a splint, his shoe off. He is sitting up, raising a solitary finger on his left hand into the air. His helmet is off. There are three men pushing the stretcher.

Tyrone Prothro leaving the field after his leg injury in 2005 during Alabama’s game versus the University of Florida

In 2005, during a game against the University of Florida, Prothro had one of the most terrible leg injuries I’ve ever witnessed [WARNING: description of injury is graphic]: he snapped both his tibia and fibia above his ankle after landing awkwardly on his leg during an attempted touchdown catch. The video of the injury shows his foot flopping around, clearly no longer attached to his leg via bone.

At the time, ESPN characterized this moment as: “one downer for Alabama on its best day under coach Mike Shula.”

When I asked about Prothro on Twitter the other day, Trey Irby pointed me to this September 2010 article from UA’s school paper, The Crimson White:

Prothro could never get his leg back into playing shape. He took his initial redshirt season in 2006 and a medical redshirt year in 2007. His last chance at playing for Alabama came in 2008. When the realization set in that he still had no chance of playing his senior season, he gave up his athletic scholarship. […]

Prothro now works at Regions Bank on Paul Bryant Drive in Tuscaloosa, in the shadow of Alabama’s practice facility and an easy walk from the stadium where he played his last game five years ago.

He was a coach for the Birmingham Wildfire of the LaBelle Community Football League during the summer of 2009, but said he wants to see where banking can take him while he waits for another coaching opportunity to open up.

Although he has shown interest in coaching, Prothro’s true desire is to play football again.

“There’s not a day I can watch Alabama football and not wish I was still out there,” he said. “There’s not a day I can watch NFL football and not think I should be out there somewhere.

The following spring, in April 2011, Jon Solomon at the Birmingham News talked to Prothro about why he had decided to add his name to the class-action lawsuit brought by Ed O’Bannon against the NCAA and Collegiate Licensing Co. “The suit argues that former athletes should be paid for the use of their images and likenesses that they sign away in college.”

Prothro told Solomon:

“It definitely seems like a fair deal, especially when you come from a family where your folks can’t afford for you to come to school,” Prothro said. “But at the same time, you look at all the revenue that the university makes off players — not just Alabama, but other universities, too.

“Say you have a player end up like I did. Because I signed over my rights as a freshman thinking I was going to the NFL, now I can’t do anything about pictures and jerseys and video games. I don’t think it’s a fair deal now that I look at it.”

Solomon goes on to describe in devastating detail the money that UA continues to make on Prothro, no part of which Prothro receives despite having given his body and, in the end, possibility of a career to the school’s football program:

Photos of Prothro are available on alabamacrimsontideprints.com for $34.99. The Electronic Arts college football video game for several years used an Alabama player with the same number, body size, skin color and closely-cropped hair as Prothro, and even included his distinctive black ankle braces.

Prothro’s spectacular grab against Southern Miss in 2005 was named that season’s Pontiac Game Changing Performance Play of the Year, resulting in a $100,000 donation to Alabama’s general scholarship fund. He gets frustrated today when Pontiac uses video of the catch to promote its NCAA sponsorship.

“Somebody is getting paid off that,” Prothro said, “and the person who had blood, sweat and tears is not seeing a dime off it.”

An action shot of Prothro catching a ball around the back of the defender. The defender is on his butt on the field, Prothro is parallel to the ground. There are two refs in the shot, one close, watching the catch carefully. The ball is in Prothro's hands and on the defender's upper back.

Prothro’s most famous catch around the body of the defender.

Prothro, now a bank teller in Tuscaloosa, said that he signed on to the lawsuit because “I don’t want to see somebody end up like me.”

That not many have spoken of Prothro in connection to discussions about Ware’ future is interesting because Solomon describes Prothro as “the poster child for the O’Bannon lawsuit” and in his piece on Ware’s future, Zirin specifically talks about the O’Bannon lawsuit:

The Kevin Ware story is why any person of conscience should support former UCLA player Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit against the NCAA. The 1995 Final Four star’s legal journey began when he came home from work and saw his likeness being used in EA Sports’s college basketball video game. O’Bannon v. NCAA has morphed into a mass class action suit demanding that players be compensated if their name and image are being used in the pursuit of profit without permission. Others have joined O’Bannon including one of the great legends and gentlemen in the history of the sport, Oscar Robertson. He was provoked after he noticed that his alma mater, the University of Cincinnati, was producing playing cards with his likeness. As he said to Yahoo! Sports, “The arrogance of the NCAA to say, ‘we have the right to do this’… is what troubles me the most. The University of Cincinnati gets a fee each time my picture is used on a card. I don’t. When I played there, there was nothing like this ever agreed to.”

I am hopeful for Ware. He is under the care of probably some of the very best doctors, trainers, and therapists.

But if Prothro and his own horrific leg injury serves as an indicator for Ware’s possible future, then we need to all be paying much more attention to the O’Bannon lawsuit and hoping that he wins it. Because we all know that whether or not Ware ever returns to the hardwood floors of the basketball arena, Louisville and sports companies will use his story (both the tragic and the resilient aspect) as well as his likeness to make money off of an injury that may haunt Ware for the rest of his life, long after his access to Louisville’s doctors, trainers, and therapists cease.

And we also know that Ware will not be the last player to face such exploitation.

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