Professional sports are a cornerstone of American popular culture.
And today, the likes of Mike Trout, LeBron James, and Patrick Mahomes are household names and the unofficial pinnacle of American success.
But before they were de facto celebrities piling up multi-million dollar contracts, they were kids…lacing up their cleats on the field or Nikes on the court at their alma maters.
College athletes are undoubtedly more agile and limber than their pro athlete counterparts.
However, the transition from high school athletics is hard on the still-developing bodies of college players. And the pressure to make the big leagues one day makes injuries the “norm.”
So just how big of an issue are injuries in college sports?
Follow along as we go over 19 college athlete injury statistics.
Injury Statistics for College Sports
- Among NCAA Division I athletes, 29.3% of injuries resulted from overuse, and the remaining 70.7% were “acute injuries.” Male and female athletes averaged 2.2 and 2.4 injuries, respectively, over the last three years.
- Female athletes are most likely to experience overuse injuries (about 62% of cases), one of the most common collegiate athlete injuries overall at 30% of all instances.
- If high-injury college sports boasted the same injury rates as low-injury sports, it would save 13,160 injuries a year and reduce healthy years lost due to injury by 2,020.
- Lower injury rates among collegiate athletes could save up to $1.5 billion in medical costs for colleges each year.
- The college sports that rack up the most injuries include wrestling (1.31%), gymnastics (1%), and soccer (1.72%).
- The safest college sport in the injury department is swimming/diving (0.18%).
You may be wondering, “What’s in the water down at college campuses that make injuries so common?”
It’s not the water.
The answer is time and intensity.
Unlike regular student exercise, college athletes, specifically Division I athletes, may dedicate upwards of 30-40 hours a week to their sport…whether that’s in the stadium, on the practice field, or in the gym.
A college athlete’s schedule may include 4+ hours of physical activity a day.
For reference, high school students spend closer to 10-15 hours a week on their athletic commitments. Doubling or even tripling the time spent training puts extraordinary pressure on young athletes’ joints, muscles, and bones.
Not to mention college students typically have poor sleep habits that inhibit muscle recovery. And the typical diet consumed by college students even on a school meal plan isn’t great either.
So is it surprising that 30% of injuries result from overuse?
Then there’s the fact that a college athlete may experience more than two athletic injuries every three years. Concerning—yes—but not surprising in the least.
The possible explanation is that rehabbing an injury and taking too many days off has consequences, whether that’s losing a starting position or having to sit out during big games.
Many student athletes muster through their injuries (or even keep them secret), which wears away further at the injured body part even if using gym gear like braces and supports. A highly dangerous choice but sometimes the only choice when a scholarship is on the line.
College Football Injuries Statistics
- About 34% of college football players reported a concussion, with 30% experiencing two or more. Meanwhile, female athletes are five times more likely to have ACL injuries.
- Of the 20,718 college football injuries each year, 841 affect the spine.
- For every 1,000 games or practices in NCAA football, injuries occur in 8.1 of them—totaling 41,000 injuries between 2004 and 2009.
- About 17.1% of football injuries among college players affect the knee, keeping players off the field for an average of seven days.
- Over half of all college football injuries occur below the waist.
- Of the more common tackle-related injuries are sprains (36%), bruises (17.9%), and concussions (12.2). Strains and sprains (51.8% and 21.7%, respectively) make up the greatest percentage of non-contact injuries.
- Pre-season football scrimmages resulted in the most injuries (about 86.4%), with standard practice (61.2%) and walkthrough practice (52.1%) trailing closely behind.
Football…the sport where you intentionally try to tackle your opponents at full-force…is not surprisingly the most dangerous sport there is—especially for young college folks.
But however bad the all-too-common sprains, strains, and bruises might be, those are arguably among the “tamest” of NCAA football injuries.
The 841 spinal injuries each year and 30% of players experiencing two or more concussions throughout their collegiate careers are mind-blowing. Yet, it’s somehow not enough to get these players to hang up the cleats.
All it takes is one wrong tackle—sometimes at no fault of your own—to lead to a fracture of your C3, C4, or C5 vertebrae to leave you paralyzed for the rest of your life.
It can even kill you.
And repeated concussions leading to subtle brain damage may not be apparent while these players are 21 or 22. But it can lead to mental health issues and/or chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) decades down the line, especially if the NFL drafts them.
So when you’re tuning in to watch your favorite college team take the field, take a step back.
Remember that these still-developing players are juggling top-notch academics and a 30+ hour commitment to the gridiron, while putting their bodies on the line every game.
While dangerous, their gameplay is impressive.
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Basketball Injuries Statistics
- Only about 25% of college basketball injuries are severe enough to keep players off the court for ten days or longer. About 13% of injuries stem from sliding, while another 10% result from battling for the ball.
- Collegiate basketball games account for 9.9 injuries for every 1,000 exposures, while practices triggered 4.3 injuries per 1,000 exposures.
- About 60% of college basketball injuries impact the lower body. Ankle sprains and internal knee issues were most common and more likely to keep players off the court for ten or more days.
Basketball is a non-contact sport, meaning the injuries on the court are far different than that of, say, football. But that doesn’t mean they’re any less severe.
With all the back-and-forth sprinting, sudden directional changes, and stopping and starting on a dime, the lower-body risks on NCAA basketball players are somewhat of a norm.
And there are plenty of cases of them.
For example, we all saw the video of Louisville’s Kevin Ware attempting to land after blocking a shot in 2013, with an awkward landing forcing a gnarly broken leg.
As for why these injuries are so common in basketball and not other sports, here are some examples of things that can lead to injury:
- A player planting their foot and twisting their body to change direction to stay on another player (knee ligament tearing)
- A player sprinting down the court and being shoved by another player, landing on their foot wrong (sprained ankle)
- A player suddenly stopping from a sprint after a turnover (hamstring strain)
- A player landing awkwardly on a jump, putting abnormal pressure on the lower leg bones (broken bone)
And since basketball players may run over two miles a game at a near-sprinting pace, the fact that 60% of basketball injuries impact the lower body is not surprising.
The injury rates also explain two “norms” on the court: Ankle wraps and high-top shoes.
Many NBA players—including LeBron James—tape their ankles for a little extra support, the same reason that most basketball players across the board sport high-top shoes. Neither is a “fix,” but both can be effective at reducing missed games due to sprains.
Soccer Injuries Statistics
- NCAA Men’s soccer players have an injury rate of 7.7 for every 1,000 exposures. Collegiate soccer produced 55,000 injuries between 2004 and 2009, and games are more likely to lead to injury than practice (16.9 vs. 5.1).
- The most common college soccer injuries include strains (25.8%), sprains (25.3%), bruises (20.3%), and concussions (5.5%). More specifically, ankle sprains (12.2%), hamstring strains (7.5%), concussions (5.5%), and groin strains (5.5%) are most likely.
- Women’s gymnastics leads to the highest number of injuries during practice (10.4 for every 1,000 exposures), while soccer leads with competition injuries (17.2 for every 1,000 exposures).
College soccer is one of the most dangerous sports when it comes to injuries amongst athletes during competition, and it’s not all that shocking.
Take a step back and picture a soccer game.
Soccer games last for 90 minutes, a player may run more than seven miles per game, and the ping-pong-like possession and dodging defenders require an immense amount of agility.
All of these things come with their own types of injuries.
The combination of the sudden stopping and starting and the multi-directional movement doesn’t ask “if” a sprain or a strain will help, but rather “when.” And given games are about 100% effort, it’s to be expected that practices are far less injurious.
But the most dangerous part of the game—and something many young leagues are already doing away with—is heading the ball.
We’re not going to get into the physics of this one.
Yet you have to remember that a soccer ball weighs 16 ounces, some soccer players can send a ball at 60+ miles per hour, and soccer players jump toward the ball to head it. This trifecta can lead to a concussion and also long-term brain damage if done repeatedly.
Soccer players insist they know how to head the ball “right,” but you can only do so much. Even a slightly wrong angle while heading can be dangerous.
This one might be obvious: Football. Between the concussion-triggering tackles, hamstring-pulling dodges, and ankle-spraining rushing attempts, it’s no surprise that college football racks up about 47,199 injuries each year.
While far higher than it should be, no other NCAA sport comes close to the number of athletes college football boasts. College football about 73,712 athletes, while other men’s sports have:
Baseball: 36,011 players
Basketball: 18,816 players
Ice hockey: 4,323 players
Statistically, each college football player will experience 1.56 injuries each year (though this doesn’t include injury severity or repeat injuries).
That depends on whether they have a scholarship and how severe the on-field injury is. The NCAA does allow colleges and universities to revoke scholarships of athletes suffering from a severe season or career-ending injury.
And to make matters worse: The colleges don’t have to pay for it!
NCAA athletes must have a medical insurance plan covering athletic injuries but are often left paying out-of-pocket to cover what insurance doesn’t (which could be 10-40% of the bill).
However, the NCAA will cover anything over $90,000.
Unfortunately, it’s not unheard of. For example, Ohio University football Jason Whitehead almost lost his scholarship after a severe neck injury that temporarily paralyzed him.
Other scholarships put at-risk (or lost) due to an injury include Kevin Ware—a Louisville basketball player who broke his leg—and Kyle Hardrick—an Oklahoma basketball player who tore his meniscus.
Many college athletes end up playing through their injuries knowing their scholarships and education are on the line. Of course, playing through injuries only puts players at greater risk for overuse injuries or more severe injuries (like a pulled hamstring turning into a torn muscle).
In many cases, it’s a lose-lose situation for the players.
Many college athletes dream of going pro and following their passion through undergrad. But not all collegiate athletes last all four years, let alone qualify for the pros.
The 30-40 hours of training each week will begin to wear on the body. Juggling academics, a social life, and athletics aren’t as easy as they seemed in high school. Injuries can mean the end of your starting position, season, or career.
And you have to ask: For what?
The undying passion for the game and motivation to succeed are both admirable.
But when you graduate from college with a degree you struggled to earn, zero ability to juggle your responsibilities, and an injury defeating your chances of a draft pick, it was all for naught.
So if it feels like “too much” or injuries are happening time and time again, it may be time to take it easy or hang up the cleats.
But if you’re a sports lover that wants to avoid the intensity and injury rates of college athletics, you do have a few other options. Fortunately, many colleges have club or rec sports that’ll keep you on the field or court while not eating up your schedule or destroying your body.
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