The athletes allege that the NCAA did not adequately protect student-athletes from concussions, including the long-term effects of concussion injuries. As a result, they are living with the effects of head injuries sustained while playing college football.
The Allegations Against the NCAA
The case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. It contains several allegations against the NCAA, including claims that the NCAA:
- did not appropriately intervene when college coaches taught players to use their heads for tackling, a practice that increases the risk of concussions
- failed to establish an association-wide system for screening players with suspected head injuries
- avoided its financial obligations to student-athletes who require continued medical care after leaving college
There is evidence that concussion injuries increase the risk of depression, dementia, early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and other health problems. Despite the evidence, the NCAA has not enforced its own concussion-related safety measures, the lawsuit claims.
The plaintiffs seek to require the NCAA to create and use a medical monitoring program. The program would track the long-term effects of head injuries in former college football players. The medical monitoring program would also pay for medical care required as a result of those injuries.
The NCAA’s Current Standard for Student-Athlete Concussion Injuries
The NCAA introduced safety measures related to concussion injuries in the 1970s. Currently, student-athletes can return to practice on the next calendar day after sustaining a concussion. For some, this means a rest period of fewer than 24 hours between the injury. This also means a practice that increases their risk of re-injury.
Re-injury is of particular concern for concussion patients. Recent research demonstrates that the risk of a second concussion is highest in the days following an initial concussion. Furthermore, the consequences of those two concussions are compounded when the second occurs before the first has fully healed.
A 2003 study by the University of North Carolina found that players need seven days or more for symptoms to fully resolve. The study also found that players with a history of previous concussions recover more slowly. The NCAA partly funded that study.
The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHSA) proposes concussion guidelines that require a player to sit out both games and practices after a concussion until cleared by a medical professional. In practice, such student-athletes sit out until their symptoms have resolved. This would be far longer than the 24 hours or less the NCAA currently requires. The NFHSA guidelines also propose monitoring of injured student-athletes by a medical professional. The NCAA currently has no such monitoring requirement.
NCAA players who make dangerous tackles can be ejected from a game or suspended. Moreover, referees can assess teams a 15-yard penalty during the game itself. However, the NCAA has done little more than reprimand coaches who teach players to use their helmets to make a tackle, the plaintiffs allege. Thus, players have an increased concussion risk during practices. And when a player makes a dangerous tackle, it’s the players, not the NCAA itself, that takes the penalty.
What to Expect Going Forward in the NCAA Concussion Lawsuit
The class-action lawsuit against the NCAA seeks to represent former football players who were injured while playing NCAA college football and who continue to suffer symptoms or related conditions after their college football careers have ended.
The high incidence of concussions among football players makes the sport a solid test case for addressing concussion protocols. Yet concussions don’t only occur in football. Going forward, other student-athletes may also seek redress from the NCAA for concussions and lingering health issues suffered in other college sports as well.
In this and similar cases, attorneys will almost certainly ask experts in neurology and concussion to opine on a number of factors. Factors could include the risks of returning to practice or competition with a concussion and the effects of multiple concussions. These experts could also opine on the impact of time periods between concussions and the connection between college concussions and health issues later in life.
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