Isaiah Austin’s Retirement: Does the NCAA medically exploit college athletes?

Mar 21, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; TV announcer Craig Sager interviews Baylor Bears center Isaiah Austin (21) after Baylor Bears beat the Nebraska Cornhuskers in a men
Mar 21, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; TV announcer Craig Sager interviews Baylor Bears center Isaiah Austin (21) after Baylor Bears beat the Nebraska Cornhuskers in a men /

Let’s begin with an assumption we likely all can agree on: one should not have to go through the draft process of a professional sport in order to learn that one has an incredibly dangerous health condition.

Unfortunately for former Baylor center Isaiah Austin, it took a standard physical at the NBA Combine revealing an abnormality in his EKG test, which prompted genetic testing, which resulted in a positive diagnosis for Marfan Syndrome.

More from Mens Basketball

Marfan Syndrome is a genetic disorder that affects the connective tissue that holds all the body’s cells, organs, and tissue together. Relevant to Austin’s basketball career, Marfan Syndrome can lead to life-threatening aortic enlargement—especially when physically exerting oneself on the basketball court.

The Spanish philosopher. poet, essayist, and novelist George Santayana once wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It seems as if every year a story comes out about a former college athlete on the brink of a professional sports career until a franchise diagnoses her with some sort of dangerous medical condition precluding a safe livelihood in full-time athletics.

In recent memory, this happened in early 2014 when the Seattle Seahawks drafted former Marshall offensive tackle Garrett Scott, only to release him upon the discovery of a rare heart condition. Unfortunately, it has happened again just one month later with Isaiah Austin.

Whenever these stories break, the narrative immediately becomes wholly sympathetic toward the plight of the athlete no longer able to do what she loves. And rightfully so. It is absolutely awful that Austin, by all accounts a good kid and a quality basketball player who has already overcome blindness in one eye, has to end his professional career before it has even started due to a scary diagnosis relatively foreign to the masses. But what if there is more to these stories than just the human interest angle?

I am almost assuredly in the minority with regard to my opinion of the NCAA. I historically have been the anti-Jay Bilas—choosing not to attack the NCAA over a failure to monetarily compensate college athletes. Do I think college athletes are being exploited by not getting paid? Absolutely! But I also consider this exploitation both willful and voluntary; that is to say, I am not sympathetic toward a high school senior knowingly signing a contract stating that she will receive free education and housing in exchange for strenuous, often 40+ hours per week mandated participation on a team.

Capitalism is by definition a profit maximizing system where exploitation is not just encouraged but often even required pursuant to fiduciary duties a corporate entity owes to its shareholders. Savvy citizens should expect to be exploited with regard to monetary pay, or lack thereof. But being exploited medically is a completely different story.

To be explicitly clear, I am not accusing the NCAA, Baylor, Marshall, or any other college with an athletics program of negligently handling the respective livelihoods of student athletes. But writing as an NCAA apologist, even I have some questions that I want answered regarding the Isaiah Austin situation, as well as experiences shared by athletes like Austin countrywide.

What is one’s reasonable expectation when getting a physical examination? When I get a yearly physical, I expect the doctors to tell me if I have anything wrong with me. If I were a college athlete expected to vigorously exercise several hours per day seven days per week, I would doubly expect the doctors to tell me if I have a condition that could make me drop dead on the field of play at any given moment. So why did Baylor never diagnose Isaiah Austin with Marfan Syndrome during his two seasons as a Bear in Waco?

Allow me to role play as a hypothetical, and likely typical, sports fan who hates the NCAA and considers it an evil cartel. This person might ask whether Baylor provides its athletes with mandatory physicals prior to competing every year. This person might take it a step further and ask how in-depth these physicals are. Is it just pissing in a cup and checking blood pressure? Are X-Rays taken? Is there an electrocardiogram involved? Are physical results audited by independent physicians not on the Baylor Athletics payroll? Perhaps most nefariously, would Baylor willingly disclose test results that would force a star recruit like Austin to no longer compete, thereby losing significant amounts of money for the basketball program?

Okay, the role play is over. I am not that hypothetical NCAA hating sports fan. Like many people who heard about the Marfan Syndrome diagnosis, I googled it and learned that it is hard to diagnose. I don’t have any reason to think that Baylor intentionally put Austin in danger for the sake of college basketball profits. But I absolutely do have questions that I believe should be answered at a national level.

If the NBA was able to spot something wrong with Austin from the results of a common physical, then why didn’t Baylor? Marfan Syndrome is a genetic disorder, so it is not like Austin magically caught it only toward the end of his Baylor basketball career. I asked Baylor Athletics to comment on their student athlete physical examination process specifically with regard to Marfan Syndrome. At the time of publication, Baylor has not replied to my questions.

There are questions that need answering and possibly medical reforms that need to be made. College athletes like Isaiah Austin should not have to unknowingly put themselves at risk during their college careers only to later be diagnosed by a professional team with an affliction warranting nothing short of retirement. Until those questions are answered and these concerns are addressed, I will go back to genuinely caring about Isaiah Austin— a basketball player I enjoyed watching since he burst onto the scene as a high school junior.

I wish you luck in your next chapter, Isaiah.