The suit, which was first reported by the New York Times, alleges the NCAA sacrificed the safety of student athletes by failing to establilsh concussion-screening guidelines and return-to-play rules.
“The NCAA has engaged in a long-established pattern of negligence and inaction with respect to concussions and concussion-related maladies sustained by its student-athletes, all the while profiting immensely from those same student-athletes,” reads the suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
The suit claims one of the plaintiffs, 25-year-old Adrian Arrington, had to drop out of Eastern Illinois University because of concussions he suffered on the football field. Arrington, a hard-hitting strong safety, finished his career with 154 tackles as well as five concussions he blames for memory loss, seizures, depression and almost daily migraines.
“One brain injury is bad, two is worse and three is worse still,” said Dr. Steven Flanagan, professor of rehabilitation medicine and chairman of NYU Langone Medical Center’s Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine. “In sports, these chronic blows to the head add up. It’s a bigger problem, I think, than people realize.”
Because college athletes aren’t compensated the same way as professional athletes, the suit seeks cash to cover medical bills and financial losses for Arrington, as well as former football players Derek Owens and Mark Turner, and former soccer player Angela Palacios. It follows a similar suit filed in July by 75 former National Football League players.
The U.S. Centers for Disease and Prevention estimates that 1.7 million people sustain traumatic brain injuries each year. Three-quarters of those injuries are considered “mild,” as concussions. But concussions are brain injuries, nonetheless.
“When we talk about concussion and mild traumatic brain injury, the ‘mild’ only refers to someone being very unlikely to die,” said Flanagan. “But the consequences can be much more severe, with chronic problems — physical, emotional and cognitive issues.”
In February, former Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson fatally shot himself in the chest, leaving a note requesting his brain be sent to the “NFL brain bank” for study. He was one of more than 500 current and former U.S. athletes who have agreed to donate their brains to research – a gift they hope will protect those who follow in their footsteps.
“People are becoming much more aware of this and starting to ask questions, both scientific ones and clinical ones,” said Flanagan.
Teasing out the long-term effects of concussions on the brain and behavior will help make sports safer, but it won’t eliminate the risk of concussions.
“I don’t think we’ll ever be able to eliminate concussions in sport, just as we’ll never be able to eliminate traumatic brain injuries from being involved in a motor vehicle accident,” said Flanagan. “But we need to make games and practices as safe as we possibly can.”
In July, Ivy League football teams announced plans to limit contact during practices to cut back collision time. And more schools are using concussion screening programs to compare players’ brain function after a hit to baseline measurements taken preseason.
“We can’t prevent bad things from happening, but we can change the rules and decrease the incidence,” said Flanagan.
In an email to the New York Times, Donald Remy, the NCAA general counsel and vice president for legal affairs, dismissed the suit, saying the association had been “at the forefront of safety issues.”
“The NCAA is an attractive target for opportunistic plaintiffs’ class-action lawyers,” he said. “To date, none of these cases have been proven to have merit.”