NCAA settles head injury suit, will change rules

 Deal stops short of setting aside money to pay players who suffered brain trauma

 

By Michael Tarm
Associated Press

CHICAGO (AP) — The NCAA, the powerful collegiate sports governing body, agreed Tuesday to settle a class-action head injury lawsuit by creating a $70 million fund to diagnose thousands of current and former college athletes to determine if they suffered brain trauma playing football, hockey, soccer and other contact sports.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association also agreed to implement a single return-to-play policy spelling out how all teams must treat players who received head blows, according to a Tuesday filing in U.S. District Court in Chicago. Critics have accused the NCAA of giving too much discretion to hundreds of individual schools about when athletes can go back into games, putting them at risk.

The issue of concussions and their lasting impact has exploded onto the U.S. sports scene in recent years, especially in American football. The NCAA has also come under increased scrutiny as a debate ramps up over compensating amateur athletes who receive scholarships but are otherwise not paid by the booming college sports industry.

Unlike a proposed settlement in a similar lawsuit against the NFL, this deal stops short of setting aside money to pay players who suffered brain trauma. Instead, athletes can sue individually for damages and the NCAA-funded tests to gauge the extent of neurological injuries could establish grounds for doing that.

Prior to the settlement, plaintiffs were scathing about how the NCAA handled the head injury issue for decades.

Instead of adopting stricter protections for athletes, the lawsuit said the NCAA chose “to sacrifice them on an altar of money and profits,” an approach that occurred even though the NCAA had known for at least a decade “of the correlation between concussions and depression, dementia and early onset Alzheimer’s disease.”

The plaintiffs cited a 2010 internal NCAA survey that found almost half of college trainers put athletes with signs of a concussion back into the same game.

The filing serves as notice to the federal judge overseeing the class-action case that the parties struck a deal after nearly a year of negotiations. In addition to football, ice hockey and soccer, the settlement also applies to all men and women who participated in basketball, wrestling, field hockey and lacrosse.

There is no cutoff date for when athletes must have played a designated sport at one of the more than 1,000 NCAA member schools to qualify for the medical exams. That means all athletes currently playing and those who participated decades ago could undergo the tests and potentially follow up with damage claims.

To keep the NCAA from having to hold unwieldy talks with multiple plaintiffs, 10 lawsuits were consolidated into the one case in Chicago, where the first lawsuit was filed in 2011. Combined, the suits identified several dozen athletes by name as having suffered brain trauma.

The lead plaintiff is Adrian Arrington, a former safety at Eastern Illinois. He said he endured five concussions while playing, some so severe he has said he couldn’t recognize his parents afterward. Subsequent headaches, memory loss, seizures and depression made it difficult to work or even care for his children, filings said.

Another named plaintiff is former Central Arkansas wide receiver Derek K. Owens. After several concussions, he said he found he could no longer retain what he had just studied. His symptoms became so severe he dropped out of school in 2011, telling his mother: “I feel like a 22-year-old with Alzheimer’s.”

Among other settlement terms, all athletes will take baseline neurological tests to start each year to help doctors determine the severity of any concussion during the season; concussion education will be mandated for coaches and athletes; and a new, independent Medical Science Committee will oversee the medical testing.

The NCAA admits no wrongdoing in the settlement and has denied understating the dangers of concussions. As proof it has tried to mitigate the risks, it has cited recent changes in equipment, medical practices and playing rules, including ones prohibiting football players from targeting an opponent’s head or neck.

The NCAA also announced in May a three-year, $30 million concussion study co-funded by the U.S. Defense Department. Plans call for initial data collection on about 7,200 athletes from 12 colleges, increasing to 37,000 athletes at 30 sites, with the aim of better understanding concussions and developing better prevention methods.

The settlement is still subject to approval by U.S. District Judge John Lee, in a process that could take months. He must grant preliminary approval and then, after affected athletes weigh in, give a final OK.

Plaintiffs’ filings say the number of athletes who may require testing to learn if they suffered long-term damage runs into the tens of thousands. They cite NCAA figures that from 2004 to 2009 alone, 29,225 NCAA athletes suffered concussions — about 16,000 in football, 5,751 in women’s soccer and 3,374 in men’s soccer.

 

Summary of NCAA head-injury settlement 

 

A filing in federal court in Chicago on Tuesday notified a U.S. district judge that lawyers for former college athletes and the NCAA reached a settlement in a class-action lawsuit after nearly a year of talks. Here’s a rundown:

KEY TERMS: The NCAA will fund a $70 million program to test current and former athletes for brain injuries. It’ll also establish a common return-to-play policy all schools must follow. And it agrees to mandate baseline neurological tests for athletes to help determine the severity of any concussion during the season.

WHO IS COVERED: Men and women who played football, ice hockey, soccer, basketball, wrestling, field hockey and lacrosse. Both current and former players going back decades who suffered concussions or suspect they did also qualify to be tested.

ARE DAMAGES INCLUDED? No. There is no lump sum set aside to pay damages to athletes who suffered debilitating head injuries. However, plaintiffs’ lawyers reserve the right to sue for damages on behalf of individual athletes, and the NCAA-funded testing program could help identify candidates for such claims.

WHAT’S NEXT: A federal judge in Chicago must first grant preliminary approval. Before final approval, he will hear from athletes nationwide — some of whom could object to the settlement terms. It’s not unusual for a judge to order changes before giving a final OK.

 

 

 

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