How Oregon's Sedona Prince rebounded and became a crusader for NCAA change

Oregon's Sedona Prince's long road back (5:46)

It's been two years of injuries, setbacks and stress for Oregon's Sedona Prince, but she has learned from her journey and is now an advocate for reform. (5:46)

Sedona Prince folded her 6-foot-7 frame into a chair in the Oregon team meeting room, getting ready to watch her teammates light up their most recent nonconference tuneup opponent in early December 2019.

Prince had yet to log her first minute in a college basketball game. It was no longer her right leg and the permanent small protrusion below her knee that was holding her back. She was plenty good enough to earn playing time on the talent-packed Ducks roster. Coach Kelly Graves believed Prince was a unique player, a surefire future pro who could be an important contributor on a team that looked poised to compete for the program's first national title. Prince's chance to play that season instead still hinged on the results of her NCAA petition. She had arrived at Oregon months earlier after a rocky freshman year at Texas and was asking the association to waive its usual one-year waiting period for transfer players.

As the film session came to an end and the lights came up, Prince's coaches asked her to hang back for a few minutes. She felt the nerves shoot through her body and float toward her skin. Word had arrived from the NCAA. She traded looks of anxious excitement with teammates who wished her luck.

Prince and her coaches believed she had a strong case to be granted a waiver, but she had long since learned to take nothing for granted. The previous 16 months of injuries, setbacks and stress had left her with tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills and instilled in her a newfound skepticism about big-time college sports. The pressure had chipped away at her mental health and was on the cusp of turning her into a crusader for reform.

The usually upbeat and optimistic Prince scanned her coaches' faces desperately searching for hints of good news. She feared that another setback might break her.

Basketball had long been a safe haven for Prince. She grew up towering over her peers and feeling like a perpetual outsider in her small Texas town less than an hour north of Austin. After the Longhorns' coaching staff started to show interest in her game in middle school, Prince's mother suggested she keep a journal to write down her goals. One of her first entries included "UT full commitment," "20 prospect letters by beginning of ninth grade," "be able to dunk" and "be loved by everyone." She dreamed of how it would feel to be a college basketball star. As Prince struggled to find her confidence and her place in the world, the basketball court was often the only place she felt she fit in.

Prince starred on her high school team in Liberty Hill, Texas. She was picked for the McDonald's All American team during her senior year and also landed on the roster of the U.S. under-18 national team. She was ranked as one of the top 10 prospects in the nation. Prince was pinching herself when she moved into her new dorm on the University of Texas campus in the summer of 2018, having passed up offers to play for the sport's traditional powerhouses in order to suit up for the team she grew up loving.

The first sign that her dream had been derailed hit Prince hard as she lay writhing in pain on the baseline of a hardwood court in Mexico City.

It was August 4, 2018, and the U.S. national team was competing in an early game of the FIBA U-18 Americas Women's Championship tournament. A few seconds earlier, Prince was leaping to block a fast-break layup when her foot came down on her opponent's sneaker. The top 90% of her body continued moving straight down to the floor. The bottom 10% jutted violently to the left, snapping both her tibia and fibula in one swift, stomach-churning crack.

Prince can recall her national team coach standing over her, trying to convince her she was going to be OK while reality started to settle in.

"I just remember looking up at him and saying, 'There goes my freshman year,'" Prince says. "It didn't feel real because it happened so fast. I knew it was really, really bad. But I didn't know it would turn into this."

Prince returned to Texas the following day. Doctors decided to wait until she was back on American soil to repair the leg because they couldn't find a rod in the entire country of Mexico long enough to stabilize her lengthy leg and its significant break. According to her medical records, Prince had two distal screws drilled into her leg to hold the rod in place on her broken tibia in an afternoon surgery at St. David's South Austin Medical Center on Aug. 6. A day later, team athletic trainer Heidi Wlezien visited Prince's hospital room to begin her rehab.

In a follow-up appointment on Aug. 17, the surgeon's physician's assistant recommended that Prince could start to put a maximum of 50% body weight on her right leg under the supervision of a physical therapist. But by then, Prince had already been pushing the limits of her surgically repaired limb under the direction of Wlezien, who was not a licensed physical therapist.

Records show Prince was doing seated leg curls and biking exercises by Aug. 10. Four days later, she was squatting and doing double-leg bridges, both considered to be substantial weight-bearing exercises. By the end of August, just three weeks removed from surgery, Prince was jogging on a treadmill with 80% of her body weight.

"That type of thing can put just a tremendous amount of strain on the surgical repair itself," says Gina Wagner, a retired physical therapist with more than 30 years of experience in sports medicine. "It can cause hardware to start to loosen because it's not given the adequate time to meld things together."

Wagner previously worked as a manager at the University of Texas's outpatient rehabilitation center. She was also an avid fan and supporter of the Longhorns' women's basketball team who sat one row behind the team's bench for almost all of their home games. When she saw videos of Prince's early rehab posted on the team's social media accounts, she grew worried about how quickly it was moving.

In mid-October, Texas head coach Karen Aston told reporters that there was a chance Prince could be ready to play at some point in the coming season. "Her recovery has been somewhat, I don't want to say miraculous, but it's been very encouraging," Aston said.

Within a month, the first signs that something was going wrong started to appear. Training records show Prince had developed a visible bump on her shin where her tibia was broken. Wagner explains that when a fracture isn't directly aligned during the healing process, the bone can expand like the head of a cauliflower searching for something to grab on to. Calluses and deformities occur when bone hardens in spots that aren't connecting to the other end of a fracture.

The Prince family started to have concerns of its own toward the end of the calendar year as more signs indicated that her bone wasn't forming a proper union. The family connected with 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 continue running, jumping and shooting baskets.

"Despite her increased complaints of pain and swelling, she was continuously advanced to perform higher and higher levels of activities requiring significant impact loading on her tibia," Wagner says. "...It's a shame to me that the University of Texas did not provide her with the highest standard of professional care. That is what the athletes and parents are told to expect when coming here, and in this case, it was sadly negligent."

A Texas spokesman declined to comment on Prince's treatment, saying health privacy laws prevented anyone at the school from discussing an athlete's medical history. Wagner submitted complaints in the spring of 2019 about Wlezien and her supervisor, Allen Hardin, to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation. She said the licensing board told her it had insufficient evidence to sanction either of them.

Doctors officially diagnosed Prince in January 2019 with a hypertrophic non-union. Her tibia had failed to heal properly. She needed a second surgery before returning to the court and would likely need another operation in the future to deal with the long-term effects of a bone that was now shifted 12 degrees off its normal axis.

Prince and her mother, Tambra, flew to New York City in early February 2019 for her second operation. After opening up her leg, doctors at New York's Hospital for Special Surgery found that a part of that cauliflower-shaped callused bone in Prince's leg had died and was infected. To wipe out the infection, they prescribed a high dosage of vancomycin, a powerful antibiotic administered through a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC). Upon returning to Texas days later, Prince started to run a high fever and had a sore lower back. According to Wagner, both issues are clear symptoms that the antibiotic was wreaking havoc on her kidneys.

Prince stayed behind on campus on Feb. 25, two weeks after her second surgery, when her team traveled for a Monday night game with top-ranked Baylor. Prince and her coaches had been hopeful back at the start of the season that her leg might be healthy enough to play against Baylor's daunting frontcourt. Instead, she was alone in her dorm room, curled up and sweating through a fever, too immobilized by her leg to make it to the bathroom when she felt the need to vomit.

She called Tambra and said, "Mama, I feel really, really ill." She called another friend and told her "I feel like I'm dying. If I continue to not tell anybody and keep going like this I'm going to die with this medicine in my body." She called the team doctor to report her fever, and she says the doctor told her to stay in bed and they would figure out what to do in the morning.

Tambra couldn't sleep that night. She waited until 4 a.m. before her own worrying convinced her to get in the car and make the 45-minute drive from Liberty Hill to Sedona's dorm room.

"They left her completely alone and left town," Tambra says. "I went up there in the middle of the night and said you are going to the hospital, period."

After checking into the emergency room later that morning, Sedona learned that the toxicity levels in her kidneys were dangerously high. Nurses at the hospital told the family that had Prince waited much longer to seek help, she could have suffered permanent organ damage or possibly even died.

Sedona stayed in the hospital for a few days while doctors worked to make sure her kidneys were flushed and her antibiotics were adjusted to a safe dosage. She wondered why only one of her teammates came to check on her during her hospital stay.

"I literally felt like I was dying and it felt like nobody really cared what I was going through," Sedona says. "I was just the kid who broke her leg and she's not playing this year so it's whatever. She'll recover and be important to us next year. That sucked, because I'm a human, you know?"

It would be a few more months before Sedona was convinced that she needed to leave the school she'd loved for so long, but her trust in Texas was corroding quickly. The final push to leave didn't arrive until the hospital bills started to arrive.

Prince says she was shopping at a craft store near Austin in the summer of 2019 when an unfamiliar number lit up her phone. The person on the other end of the line was calling from a collection agency to inform her that she owed more than $7,000 in unpaid medical bills.

She assumed that the call must be the result of a mistake that could easily be sorted out. She called her father, James, to find out what was happening.

James had spent the past several months exchanging emails with university staff as medical bills regularly landed in his mailbox. He says he found it hard to believe that the richest athletic department in the country -- one that annually generates more than $200 million in revenue -- was unwilling to cover the health care costs of one of its athletes.

NCAA rules require that each school makes sure their athletes all have personal medical insurance before allowing them to participate. Prince's coverage came from a family policy owned by her parents. The athlete's insurance provider -- not the school -- is the first responsibility party for paying medical costs.

A Texas spokesman said the school provides secondary coverage that pays for out-of-pocket expenses, deductibles, co-pays or claims that are denied by an athlete's insurance provider. However, there are some exceptions, the spokesman said, including "immediate/emergent care for injuries sustained while participating with another athletic team (e.g., Olympic, summer league, All-Star, etc.)."

Emails obtained by ESPN show Texas officials told the Princes that USA Basketball and its insurance provider were responsible for paying her medical bills even for costs incurred months after Sedona's initial injury.

James said he doesn't recall anyone explaining this payment structure during Sedona's recruitment. He was shocked when he learned shortly after the second surgery that their family's annual coverage had reached its limit.

"Maybe that's just us being naive, but you get rushed up in this fanfare of being accepted and rewarded," he says. "You're hearing about all the ways that they're going to take care of you and treat you like family. We never really even thought to ask about the medical coverage."

The medical bills soon added up to more than $28,000 of expenses that weren't covered by insurance. The Prince family explored the possibility of filing a lawsuit to compel Texas to pay, but they say several attorneys told them that tort reform laws in the state make it nearly impossible to successfully sue a public university. James said he ended up paying roughly $10,000 out of pocket and USA Basketball tapped into an emergency fund to take care of the rest. He described the day that collection agents started calling his 18-year-old daughter as "a gut punch."

As calls and letters from bill collectors continued to come that summer, James and Tambra worried that their daughter might not make it through with her spirit or her interest in playing basketball intact. In a year's time, Sedona had gone from dreaming about her future as a professional basketball player to worrying about her credit score while healing from significant injuries.

"I should have been focused on recovering and rehabbing and playing basketball games, being happy with my sport," Sedona says. "And here I am thinking, 'Do I file for bankruptcy? Am I going to be in debt the rest of my life?' That was one of my top concerns at the time. ... After a while, I realized this is on me now, I started losing trust in a lot of people and just in the system. I realized I'm by myself. It's just me and my family and the close people around me. I can't really put my trust in other people. It was a hard lesson to learn."

Prince decided to leave Texas at the end of her freshman year and, despite the fact that she was still battling back from a major injury, immediately attracted the attention of the top coaches in college basketball. She chose Oregon, drawn there by the beauty of the Pacific Northwest's tall pines and the sense of camaraderie among teammates she felt was missing at Texas.

Oregon's Graves says recruiting Prince a second time was "a no-brainer."

"Anytime you have the opportunity to recruit someone like that, you do it."

While Prince continued the tedious daily grind of rehabbing her leg, she worked with the compliance office at Oregon to put together her waiver request.

The NCAA allows athletes in most sports to transfer schools one time without penalty. For basketball players and athletes in a handful of other sports, the NCAA requires transfers to sit for one season after they transfer to a new school. An athlete's new school can apply for a waiver to allow them to play right away if they've experienced some type of hardship that led to their decision to change schools. Prince was one of 98 women's basketball players to request a similar waiver for the 2019-20 academic year. The NCAA granted 62 requests and denied 36 of them.

Oregon put together a waiver application with more than three dozen documents gathered by Prince, her family and Wagner, the physical therapist who reviewed Prince's medical records at Texas.

"I felt she had a great case," Graves says. "She had nothing negative to say about their coaching staff and their program. It was basically medical related and she needed the change."

The school submitted Prince's request in early November. A little more than a month later, her final answer had arrived. Prince's teammates filtered out of the room following their afternoon film session while she scanned the coaches' faces. She couldn't find any smiles. Her heart dropped. The NCAA had denied her request. She sank into a chair and started to cry.

"I looked at my assistant coach and she looked at me with such big eyes and she just nodded at me and told me no," Prince says. "And I was just so angry. I was like 'Why? Why can't I catch a break? It's toxic that I went through all this and now that I'm in a better place I still can't play."

A Texas spokesman said the school did not object to the NCAA granting immediate eligibility to Prince. The Prince family says Texas did, however, dispute her claims about the quality of medical care she received in Austin. Those types of disagreements can carry significant weight in the NCAA's decision-making process, according to an attorney with experience in the process.

It took weeks before Prince returned to her normal upbeat attitude at practice. Eventually, she fell back into a rhythm of helping her teammates prepare for their next opponent. She squared off daily with senior Ruthy Hebard, who was selected 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 cut their season short.

Prince, 20, returned to the court this season, logging a 17-point performance in her long-awaited collegiate debut in November. She battled through problems with her left ankle, but she has recently settled into a regular spot in the starting lineup.

Prince has held on to her childhood dreams of becoming an All-American, dunking in a game or hearing a full stadium cheer after she made a big play. She says being in Eugene has helped restore her faith in the vision she had for her career as a middle schooler jotting down goals in her journal.

But she also now holds a different view of college sports. She's part of a growing class of current college athletes who are more comfortable speaking out about what they view as an unfair industry that generates billions of dollars while failing to provide the kind of care and education that leaders profess.

"It's a business," she says. "When you think about it in the long run, there's not a lot of care for student-athletes. That sucks because we make the money. We do the hard work. We're in the gym, grinding, lifting, putting our bodies on the line for our sport. ... We don't feel like we're cared for or represented."

Prince says she's learned in the past year that she has a big voice and has 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 claiming the association is violating antitrust law by limiting the ways in which athletes can make money while in school. Her suit is the latest in a string of similar lawsuits that have pushed the NCAA to offer more benefits to athletes during the past decade.

Graves said both he and Prince have received some angry criticism from fans who don't understand why college athletes aren't satisfied with what they already receive. He and the coaching staff, though, encouraged her to stand up for her beliefs.

"I'm 100% behind her," Graves says. "If anybody can handle this kind of pressure, it's her."