Sedona Prince folded her 6-foot-7 frame into a chair in the Oregon team’s meeting room, preparing to see her teammates light up their youngest non-conference opponent in early December 2019.
Prince hadn’t recorded her first minute in a college basketball game. It was no longer her right leg and the permanent little protrusion under her knee that was holding her back. She was good enough to earn time on the talented Ducks roster. Coach Kelly Graves believed Prince was a one-of-a-kind player, a surefire future professional who could make an important contribution to a team that seemed poised to fight for the program’s first national title. Prince’s chance to play this season still depended on the results of their NCAA petition. She had arrived in Oregon months earlier after a rocky first year in Texas and asked the association to waive the usual one-year waiting period for transfer players.
When the film session ended and the lights were on, Prince’s coaches asked her to sit back for a few minutes. She felt the nerves shoot through her body and float to her skin. A message had arrived from the NCAA. She exchanged anxious looks with teammates wishing her luck.
Prince and her coaches believed she had a strong case for getting a waiver, but she had long since learned not to take anything for granted. The past 16 months of injuries, setbacks, and stress had left her with tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills and a newfound skepticism about major college sports. The pressure on her sanity had eased and was on the verge of turning her into a crusader for reform.
The normally upbeat and upbeat prince scanned the faces of their coaches, desperately looking for any clues of good news. She feared that another setback could break her.
Basketball had long been a safe haven for Prince. Growing up above her coworker, she felt like an eternal outsider in her small Texas town, less than an hour north of Austin. After the Longhorns coaching team showed interest in their middle school game, Prince’s mother suggested keeping a journal to write down their goals. One of her earliest entries included “UT Full Commitment”, “20 Potential Letters by Year 9th Grade”, “Being able to dive in”, and “To be loved by all”. She dreamed of what it would feel like to be a college basketball star. While Prince struggled to find her confidence and place in the world, the basketball court was often the only place she felt fit.
Prince played on her high school team in Liberty Hill, Texas. She was selected for the McDonald’s All American Team in her senior year and also landed on the US U18 national team list. She was ranked as one of the top 10 prospects in the nation. Prince squeezed herself into her new dorm on the University of Texas campus in the summer of 2018 after turning down offers to play for the traditional powerhouses of the sport in order to be suitable for the team she grew up loving .
The first sign that her dream was derailed hit Prince hard when she writhed in pain on the baseline of a hardwood court in Mexico City.
It was August 4, 2018, and the US national team was playing an early game of the FIBA U-18 Americas Women’s Championship tournament. A few seconds earlier, Prince jumped to block a quick pause when her foot fell on her opponent’s sneaker. The top 90% of her body kept moving directly to the ground. The bottom 10% protruded violently to the left, snapping both their tibia and fibula in a rapid gastrointestinal tear.
Prince can remember her national coach standing over her trying to convince her she would be fine while reality leveled off.
“I just remember looking up at him and saying, ‘It’s my first year,'” says Prince. “It didn’t really feel because it was going so fast. I knew it was really, really bad. But I didn’t know it was going to be that way.”
The next day, Prince returned to Texas. Doctors decided to wait until she was back on American soil to fix the leg, as they couldn’t find a rod across the country of Mexico long enough to stabilize her long leg and its significant fracture. According to her medical records, Prince had drilled two distal screws into her leg on Aug. 6 to hold the bar in place on her broken tibia in an afternoon surgery at St. David’s South Austin Medical Center. A day later, team sports trainer Heidi Wlezien was visiting Prince’s hospital room to begin her rehab.
In a follow-up appointment on August 17, the medical assistant to surgeon Prince recommended that a maximum of 50% body weight be placed on her right leg under the supervision of a physiotherapist. But by this point, Prince had already exceeded the limits of her surgically repaired limb under the guidance of Wlezien, who was not a licensed physical therapist.
Records show that Prince did seated leg curls and bicycle exercises through August 10. Four days later, she squatted and did double leg bridges, both of which were considered significant weight-bearing exercises. In late August, just three weeks before surgery, Prince was jogging on a treadmill at 80% of her body weight.
“Something like that can only put a huge strain on surgical repair itself,” says Gina Wagner, a retired physiotherapist with more than 30 years of experience in sports medicine. “It can cause the hardware to loosen up because there isn’t enough time to merge things together.”
Wagner previously worked as a manager at the University of Texas outpatient rehabilitation center. She was also an avid fan and supporter of the Longhorns women’s basketball team, which sat a row behind the team’s bench at almost all home games. When she saw videos of Prince’s early rehab posted on the team’s social media accounts, she worried about how fast she was moving.
In mid-October, Texas head coach Karen Aston told reporters that Prince could potentially be ready to play next season. “Your recovery has been something I don’t want to say it’s a miracle, but it has been very encouraging,” said Aston.
Within a month, the first signs that something was going wrong appeared. Exercise records show that Prince developed a visible bump on her shin where her tibia was broken. Wagner explains that if a fracture is not directly aligned during the healing process, like the head of a cauliflower looking for something to hold on to, the bone can expand. Calluses and deformities occur when the bone hardens in places that are not connected to the other end of a fracture.
The Prince family began to have concerns of their own towards the end of the calendar year, as additional evidence suggested that their bone was not forming a proper union. The family was linked to Wagner through a mutual friend and had the retired (but still licensed) physical therapist review Sedona’s medical records. Wagner says the records were littered with missed red flags as Sedona was allowed to keep running, jumping and shooting baskets.
“Despite her increased complaints of pain and swelling, she was continuously developed to carry out ever higher levels of activity that required considerable stress on her tibia,” says Wagner. “… It is a shame to me that the University of Texas did not offer it the highest standard of professional care. That is what athletes and parents should expect when they come here, and in this case it was unfortunately negligent.”
A Texas spokesman declined to comment on Prince’s treatment. He said privacy laws prevented anyone in the school from discussing an athlete’s medical history. In spring 2019, Wagner filed complaints about Wlezien and her manager Allen Hardin with the Texas Ministry of Licensing and Regulation. She said the permitting agency told her there wasn’t enough evidence to sanction either.
Doctors officially diagnosed Prince with a hypertrophic non-union in January 2019. Her tibia was not properly healed. She needed a second operation before returning to court and would likely need another operation in the future to deal with the long-term effects of a bone that was now 12 degrees off its normal axis.
Prince and her mother Tambra flew to New York City for their second surgery in early February 2019. After opening her leg, doctors at the New York Specialty Surgery Hospital found that part of that cauliflower-shaped corneal bone in Prince’s leg had died and infected. To eradicate the infection, they prescribed a high dose of vancomycin, a powerful antibiotic given through a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC). When Prince returned to Texas days later, he developed a high fever and a sore lower back. According to Wagner, both problems are clear symptoms that the antibiotic has devastated her kidneys.
Prince stayed on campus on February 25, two weeks after her second surgery, as her team traveled for a game on Monday night with senior Baylor. Prince and her coaches had hoped earlier in the season that her leg could be healthy enough to play against Baylor’s daunting forecourt. Instead, she was alone in her dormitory, curled up and sweating from a fever, too immobile on her leg to get into the bathroom when she felt the need to throw up.
She called Tambra and said, “Mom, I feel really, really sick.” She called another friend and said to her, “I feel like I’m dying. If I keep telling anyone and keep doing this, I’ll die with this medicine inside my body.” She called the team doctor to report her fever and she said the doctor told her to stay in bed and that they would find out what to do in the morning.
Tambra couldn’t sleep that night. She waited until 4 a.m. before her own worries convinced her to get in the car and make the 45-minute drive from Liberty Hill to Sedona’s dormitory.
“They left her completely alone and left town,” says Tambra. “I went up there in the middle of the night and said you were going to the hospital, period.”
After Sedona checked into the emergency room later that morning, she found that the toxicity in her kidneys was dangerously high. Nurses at the hospital told the family that Prince had waited much longer for help, suffered permanent organ damage, or possibly even died.
Sedona stayed in the hospital for a few days while the doctors worked to get her kidneys flushed and her antibiotics set to safe doses. She wondered why only one of her teammates checked on her during her hospital stay.
“I literally felt like I was dying and it felt like nobody really cared about what I was going through,” says Sedona. “I was just the boy who broke my leg and she’s not playing this year, so whatever. She’ll recover and be important to us next year. That sucks because I’m human, you know you?”
It would be a few more months before Sedona was convinced she had to leave the school she had loved for so long, but her confidence in Texas was quickly corroding. The last urge to leave wasn’t until the hospital bills arrived.
Prince says she was shopping at a craft store near Austin in the summer of 2019 when an unknown number lit her phone. The person on the other end of the line called from a debt collection agency to tell them they owed more than $ 7,000 in unpaid medical bills.
She assumed the call must be the result of some mistake that could easily be fixed. She called her father James to find out what was going on.
James had been exchanging emails with university staff for the past few months because of the regular medical bills he’d received in his mailbox. He found it hard to believe that the richest sports division in the country – one that generates more than $ 200 million in sales annually – was unwilling to cover the health bills of any of its athletes.
Under the NCAA rules, any school must ensure that all athletes have personal health insurance before they can participate. Prince’s coverage came from a family policy that belonged to her parents. The athlete’s insurance – not the school – is the first party responsible for paying medical expenses.
A Texas spokesman said the school offers secondary coverage that pays out of pocket expenses, deductibles, co-payments, or claims that are denied by an athlete’s insurance company. There are a few exceptions, however, the spokesman said, including “immediate / emergency treatment for injuries sustained while participating in another sports team (e.g. Olympics, Summer League, All-Star, etc.)”.
Emails received from ESPN reveal that Texas officials notified the Prince that US Basketball and its insurer are responsible for paying their medical bills for expenses incurred months after Sedona’s initial injury.
James said he doesn’t remember anyone explaining this payment structure during Sedona recruiting. He was shocked to learn shortly after the second operation that her family’s annual coverage had reached its limit.
“Maybe we’re just naive, but you throw yourself into this fanfare of being accepted and rewarded,” he says. “You hear about all the ways they look after you and treat you like family. We never really thought about asking about medical care.”
The medical bills soon added up to more than $ 28,000 in uninsured expenses. The Prince family was looking into filing a lawsuit to compel Texas to pay. However, several lawyers told them that the state’s crime reform laws make it nearly impossible to successfully sue a public university. James said he ended up paying about $ 10,000 out of pocket and US Basketball had drawn an emergency fund to take care of the rest. He described the day collection agencies called his 18-year-old daughter a “belly blow”.
With calls and letters from bill collectors continuing that summer, James and Tambra worried that their daughter might not make it with her spirit or interest in basketball. In a year, Sedona had stopped dreaming of her future as a professional basketball player and had instead worried about her creditworthiness as she healed from serious injuries.
“I should have focused on recovering, rehabilitating, and playing basketball games to be happy with my sport,” says Sedona. “And here I am thinking, ‘Am I going to file for bankruptcy? Will I be in debt for the rest of my life?’ That was one of my main concerns at the time. … After a while I realized that this is now up to me. I lost trust in many people and only in the system. I realized that I am alone, just me and mine Family and the people around me. I can’t really trust other people. It was a difficult lesson to learn. “
Prince decided to leave Texas at the end of her freshman year, and despite the fact that she was still fighting back from a serious injury, she immediately caught the attention of top college basketball coaches. She chose Oregon, drawn to the beauty of the tall pines of the Pacific Northwest and the sense of camaraderie among teammates she lacked in Texas.
Oregon’s Graves says recruiting Prince a second time was “a no-brainer”.
“Whenever you have the opportunity to recruit someone like this, do it.”
While Prince continued the laborious day-to-day rehabilitation of her leg, she worked with the Oregon Compliance Office to put together her waiver application.
The NCAA allows athletes in most sports to change schools once without penalty. For basketball players and athletes in a handful of other sports, the NCAA requires transfers to occur for a season after they move to a new school. An athlete’s new school may request a waiver so that they can play immediately if they experience difficulties that led to their decision to change schools. Prince was one of 98 female basketball players to request a similar waiver for the 2019-20 academic year. The NCAA granted 62 applications and rejected 36 of them.
Oregon filed a waiver application containing more than three dozen documents collected by Prince, her family, and Wagner, the physical therapist who reviewed Prince’s medical records in Texas.
“I felt like she had a great case,” says Graves. “She had nothing negative to say about her coaching staff and her program. It was basically medical and she needed the change.”
The school submitted Prince’s request in early November. A little over a month later, her final answer had arrived. Prince’s teammates emerged from the room after their afternoon movie session while she scanned the coaches’ faces. She couldn’t find a smile. Her heart sank. The NCAA had denied their request. She sank into a chair and started crying.
“I looked at my assistant coach and she looked at me with such big eyes and she just nodded at me and said no,” says Prince. “And I was just so mad. I was like, ‘Why? Why can’t I take a break? It’s toxic that I’ve been through all of this and now that I’m in a better place I still can’t play.”
A Texas spokesman said the school doesn’t mind the NCAA granting Prince immediate eligibility. The Prince family says Texas, however, has denied their claims about the quality of medical care they received in Austin. According to an attorney with experience in the process, such disagreements can carry significant weight in the NCAA’s decision-making process.
It took Prince weeks to return to her normal optimistic attitude while exercising. Eventually she fell back into a rhythm of helping her teammates prepare for their next opponent. Every day she met the senior Ruthy Hebard, who was voted eighth overall in last year’s WNBA draft. She enjoyed celebrating with the team as it plowed through the Pac-12 en route to a 31-2 record before COVID-19 broke off her season.
Twenty-year-old Prince made a return to the field this season, posting a 17-point performance on her long-awaited college debut in November. She struggled with problems with her left ankle but recently secured a permanent spot on the starting grid.
Prince has held onto her childhood dreams of becoming an All-American, immersing herself in a game, or hearing a full stadium cheer after doing a big piece. She says being in Eugene helped restore her confidence in the vision she had for her career as a middle school student by writing goals in her diary.
But she also sees university sports differently now. She belongs to a growing class of current college athletes who are more comfortable talking about what they consider to be an unfair industry that generates billions of dollars while not providing the kind of care and training that executives profess.
“It’s a business,” she says. “If you think about it in the long run, there isn’t a lot of care for student athletes. That sucks because we make the money. We do the hard work. We’re at the gym, grind, lift, put our bodies on the line for our sport … we don’t feel looked after or represented. “
Prince says she learned last year she had a great voice and decided to use it to push for change. Last June, she sued the NCAA as one of two named plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit alleging the association was violating antitrust laws by limiting the ways athletes can make money in school. Her suit is the latest in a series of similar suits that have led the NCAA to give athletes more benefits over the past decade.
Graves said both he and Prince have received some angry criticism from fans who fail to understand why college athletes are not happy with what they are already receiving. However, he and the coaching team encouraged her to stand up for her faith.
“I’m 100% behind her,” says Graves. “If anyone can handle that kind of pressure, it is her.”