Marcus Lattimore, running back for the University of South Carolina and one of the top running back prospects in college football, sustained a gruesome right knee injury on Saturday during a game against the University of Tennessee. This injury comes after Lattimore tore the ACL in his left knee last year. If you haven’t seen the injury, you can see it here on YouTube (warning: the injury video is graphic). While some speculated that he had broken bones after seeing the injury video, he actually had a knee dislocation. I have not heard any official results of his MRI as to what ligaments are torn, but based on the video and pictures I can speculate on the injuries and treatment.
In the not-so-distant past, a knee dislocation was a permanently disabling injury. It usually results in tearing of at least three of the four major stabilizing ligaments of the knee. There is also a chance (approximately 30%) of injury to the main artery and the major nerves of the leg. Over the past 10-15 years, orthopaedic surgeons have made significant progress in treating and reconstructing knees with these injuries. For most knee dislocations, a stable knee that allows the patient to perform daily activities and light exercise is considered a success. For an elite athlete like Lattimore, obviously the ideal result would be to allow him to return to his previous level of play. Very few athletes have returned to elite-level football after this type of injury. I have heard comparisons to Adrian Peterson’s injury in which he tore his ACL and MCL, but Lattimore’s injury is an order of magnitude greater. The best comparison may be former Miami Hurricane and current Denver Bronco Willis McGahee, who had a knee dislocation in college, tearing his ACL, PCL, and MCL. He was able to return and is currently in his 10th year in the NFL. If Lattimore has tears to his LCL and posterolateral corner structures (which is likely based on the video), then his injury doesn’t really compare to any high profile athlete that I remember.
Besides the orthopaedic issues regarding the knee injury, this highlights one of the problems with high-level NCAA athletics. Players like Lattimore make millions of dollars for their institution, and their only payment is a scholarship and notoriety. As long as they can stay healthy, a player like Lattimore will recoup this money once drafted into the NFL. In this case however, if he is unable to return to play after this injury then he will not get anything in return. The NCAA does have an insurance program called the Exceptional Student-Athlete Disability Insurance Program. For athletes in major sports that are projected to be drafted in the first three rounds of their professional draft, they can take out a disability policy and qualify for a loan to help with the premiums. I have no idea if Lattimore had this policy. I would hope that the schools would encourage this of their top athletes, because I doubt most of the athletes know of this obscure NCAA program. Even if they do, many young people (especially athletes) think they are invincible and insurance with a high premium is the last thing on their mind.
Major orthopaedic injuries will always be an unavoidable risk of playing football, especially at higher levels. I don’t know if there is a perfect answer to protect the student-athletes, but the current system definitely seems unfair to them. I am not an advocate of paying college athletes a salary to play, but perhaps some of the hundreds of millions of dollars that the NCAA gets from its television contracts for football and basketball should go towards paying for disability insurance for the athletes.