The NCAA Responds to Brain Injury Lawsuit

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The NFL isn’t the only football league in the United States grappling with a troublesome brain injury lawsuit. While the NFL and its players are sent to mediation to settle their dispute, the NCAA is gearing up to face a class-action lawsuit filed in 2011 in the U.S. District Court in Chicago by former Eastern Illinois football player Adrian Arrington and numerous other players.

Until now, the NCAA has been mum on the suit while regularly championing their advancements in brain injury management and research investments and simultaneously stating that the individual teams are the primary group responsible for player safety.

Saturday, however, the NCAA finally spoke out about the suit, rejecting the claims made by former players by stating “student-athlete safety is one of the NCAA’s foundational principles. The NCAA has been at the forefront of safety issues throughout its existence,” as USA Today reported.

Spokeswoman for the NCAA Stacey Osburn emphasized that the issues surrounding brain injuries are addressed through playing rules, equipment requirements, and medical practices. She also stated clearly that she did not believe the lawsuit was an appropriate way to address the issue.

The statements from the NCAA came immediately after The Washington Times reviewed emails and documents filed in the suit and reported that the NCAA had been negligent in addressing concussions up to and possibly beyond 2010. Not only were they negligent, they were often downright flippant and condescending on the issue during emails sent within the organization, especially towards the league’s own director of health and safety David Klossner.

The emails called him a “cartoon character” and stated that “Dave is hot/heavy on the concussion stuff,” as Ty Halpin, director of the playing rules administration, described, before stating “he’s been trying to force our rules committees to put in rules that are not good – I think I’ve finally convinced him to calm down.”

As such, it was imperative the NCAA respond to the criticisms, though their statements are certainly worthy of scrutiny. Most notably, Osburn’s statement that the concussion issue is addressed through playing rules and equipment requirements seems questionable.

Before 2010, there was hardly any brain injury plan put in place to speak of. Since then, the NCAA has required schools to have concussion management plans that inform players about the signs and symptoms of brain injury, remove players who show signs of concussion from play, and prohibit players from returning to the field the same day of their injury. Every other detail of brain injury management is deferred to the individual schools that make up the league.

As for equipment requirements, new helmets simply aren’t a solution to brain injury. Not only is the chief helmet supplier of the NCAA, Riddell, already involved in numerous lawsuits for their concussion prevention claims, but multiple studies have stated that helmets simply cannot prevent brain injury, especially concussion. While a helmet is protective and reduces the risk of brain injury, they do little for the rotational acceleration most associated with TBI, and should only be seen as a small part of a concussion prevention plan.

It should be noted, there are teams who are making great strides to protect their players, but they are not the majority. Most competing teams are happy to follow the bare minimum and many players would rather risk debilitating injury late in life than sit out a game due to an invisible injury.

So where does this leave us? Chances are there will be no sweeping changes from the league in the near future, and a comprehensive legal decision is unlikely and would take years to be handed down and appealed. It looks like we will be watching this play out for years while it is business as usual on the field.

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