The organization known today as the NCAA was formed in the beginning of the 20th century to protect athletes at American universities from “the dangerous and exploitive athletics practices of the time,” as football and other sports played rigorously on college campuses were becoming more dangerous in the absence of a regulatory body.
Today, the NCAA is facing a major lawsuit from former athletes asserting that it has failed that mission by refusing to acknowledge the dangers concussions pose to its athletes. Former Eastern Illinois University football player Adrian Arrington and two other NCAA athletes filed the lawsuit in 2012. They are now seeking certification to make it a class action suit that would allow thousands of other former athletes to join in their claims. The suit is not unlike those filed by more than 4,000 former NFL players against the league last year, and as CBS Sports’ Mike Freeman noted, the NFL is likely to use the NCAA case to help defend itself in its own.
According to court documents made public Friday, NCAA athletes suffered 29,225 concussions between 2004 and 2009. Football players suffered the majority — more than 16,000 — but the concussions were widespread across sports, and as this chart from the court filing shows, concussions made up significant portions of the injuries suffered in many NCAA-sanctioned sports:
The NCAA, the plaintiffs argued in the court filings, has been aware of the dangers of concussions since 1933. But in recent years, it has ignored protocols adopted by national trainers and promoted by doctors and researchers, refusing to implement nationwide standards regarding the type of testing athletes suspected of suffering a concussion should undergo and uniform rules for when such a player should be allowed to re-enter a game. By 1994, NCAA officials reported that 60 percent of its head injuries were concussions. It continued to fund research into the commonality of concussions throughout the first decade of the 21st century, but the NCAA has instituted only minimal treatment standards while leaving the majority of the decisions to its member schools. In doing so, it ignored medical recommendations on how concussions should be treated and when athletes should return to competition, the plaintiffs said.
The NCAA left concussions to its members, according to court documents, in part to shield itself from potential legal liabilities, because it can argue that it didn’t need to act on concussions since its members were required and empowered to act — and should have acted — on their own. When the NCAA considered adding official rules regarding concussions to its rulebook, officials raised concerns about the liabilities that could emerge. “And, what about the NCAA? Would we be protecting/helping the organization by not providing the information?” Teresa Smith, the an assistant rules director, wrote in an email included in court documents. The NCAA also does not require its members to follow the concussion and return-to-play guidelines included in its Handbook, which stated plainly, “These recommendations are not intended to establish a legal standard of care that must be strictly adhered to by member institutions. In other words, these guidelines are not mandates that an institution is required to follow to avoid legal liability or disciplinary sanctions by the NCAA.”
Instead of adopting hard-and-fast standards, the NCAA required schools to develop their own Concussion Management Plans that detailed protocols for the treatment and evaluation of players suspected to have suffered a concussion. But the NCAA requires only that schools have those plans, not that they are followed — and it never intended otherwise. “The legislation was specifically written to require institutions to have a plan and describe what minimum components had to be part of the plan — not about enforcing whether or not they were following their plan — except for those isolated circumstances of systemic or blatant violations,” NCAA Director of Enforcement Chris Strobel wrote in an email in October 2010. According to David Klossner, the NCAA’s director of health and safety, the NCAA isn’t even monitoring whether those plans exist. In an April deposition, Klossner said the NCAA does not require schools to submit their plans to the NCAA and has not disciplined, to his knowledge, those that have not put a plan in place.
Only 66 percent of schools perform baseline testing that helps assess concussion symptoms on athletes and less than 50 percent require a physician to see athletes who suffer a concussion before allowing them to return to play, according to an NCAA survey of athletic trainers conducted in 2010. 39 percent have no return-to-play guidelines, and nearly half of all schools said they would allow a concussed athlete to return to play the same day the injury was suffered:
The tragedy is that the NCAA could have prevented this by standardizing its concussion treatment protocols long ago, especially if it has been aware of the dangers for decades as the lawsuit alleges. Instead it decided to wash its hands of the issue, and by delegating the concussion problem to its member institutions and refusing to enforce strong rules and regulations, it made the conscious decision to protect itself from legal liabilities instead of protecting its athletes from debilitating brain injuries.
Other emails included in the filing show exactly how entrenched the NCAA’s intransigence on concussions was. When Klossner, the medical director, was trying to get the NCAA to bolster its concussion rules and protocols, he was not only ignored but mocked by his colleagues, according to court documents. “Dave is hot/heavy on the concussion stuff,” Ty Halpin, the NCAA’s director of playing rules administration, wrote in one email. “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.” Another official responded: “He reminds me of a cartoon character.”