Congresswoman Challenges NCAA Over Its Handling Of Concussions


NCAA president Mark Emmert

As the number of lawsuits against it continues to grow, the NCAA is now facing pressure over its handling of concussions on another front: from a member of Congress. California Rep. Linda Sanchez (D), who has previously chaired hearings asking the National Football League about concussions, penned a letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert Tuesday to “express [her] concern about the increasing number of traumatic brain injuries in college football” and how the NCAA has dealt with them.

Sanchez referenced the death of 22-year-old Derek Sheely, a former football player at Frostburg State University who died after returning to the practice field despite sustaining multiple head injuries, according to a recent Washington Times report. Sheely’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the NCAA and Frostburg State officials earlier this year. Sanchez’s letter also notes a number of studies showing the dangers of concussions in sports and asks Emmert to address multiple questions about the actions the NCAA has taken to increase safety for football players, what it is doing to ensure that universities are following rules that require them to have concussion management plans, and what it has done to educate athletes about the dangers of concussions.

There were more than 29,000 concussions in NCAA-sanctioned sports between 2004 and 2009, according to documents disclosed as part of a lawsuit against the NCAA from former athletes who say the organization did not do enough to protect them from brain injuries. Football players suffered a majority, more than 16,000, of them. As recently as 2010, the NCAA did not have stated concussion protocols for its member schools.

That changed, as Sanchez’s letter notes, in 2011, when the NCAA required all schools to develop what are known as concussion management plans to outline how injured athletes should be evaluated, treated, managed, and allowed to return to play. While those plans are required, they are largely left to schools to develop and the NCAA has little oversight of the process. In 2010, NCAA director of enforcement Chris Strobel testified that the rules were meant to require schools to have the plans, “not about enforcing whether or not they were following their plan.” In April 2013, NCAA medical director David Klossner testified that to his knowledge the NCAA has not monitored whether schools have developed the plans and that no NCAA school had been punished for failing to institute a plan.

There are now five lawsuits against the NCAA alleging mishandling of concussions.

Amid concerns at the NFL, NCAA, and other levels of football, Congress has taken an increased interest in concussions over the last year. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin (D) proposed legislation in September that would require states to develop concussion management and education guidelines for public school districts. The NCAA, along with other organizations, endorsed Durbin’s bill. Reps. Charlie Dent (R-LA) and Joyce Beatty (D-OH) have also introduced legislation that would mandate baseline concussion testing for all collegiate athletes as part of a broader NCAA reform package.

None of that legislation is likely to move any time soon, and the lawsuits pose the biggest threat to the NCAA right now. But Sanchez, who once compared the NFL’s handling of concussions to Big Tobacco’s intransigence on smoking’s link to lung cancer, has been a dogged proponent of ensuring that major sports organizations are protecting their athletes, and as more information comes forward about the dangers of concussions — and about what the NCAA has or hasn’t done to protect athletes from them — the organization could draw even more scrutiny from her and other lawmakers.

“There is an increasing number of studies showing significant risk to individuals who suffer repeated head trauma — be it in the NFL, professional boxing, or high school and college sports,” Sanchez wrote in her letter to Emmert. “I believe we must do more to protect our student athletes. I look forward to working with the NCAA to ensure the necessary steps are taken to ensure their safety.”