‘I got used and abused’: NCAA concussion lawsuit could change the games

NCAA concussion lawsuit looms over college football’s biggest celebration.

CREDIT: Photo via Getty Images, design by Diana Ofosu of ThinkProgress
CREDIT: Photo via Getty Images, design by Diana Ofosu of ThinkProgress

Fred Pettus, a former defensive end at the University of Richmond, remembers his first concussion vividly. He was an 18-year-old in high school chasing a running back out of bounds when he tackled him, slid, and hit his head on the opponent’s bench. He was knocked out cold. When he came to, he sat on the bench in a fog, while his coaches ran across the field to look at him.

His memories of his final concussion aren’t so clear. He knows it happened on September 16, 1989, in a televised night game against James Madison University. But he’s never watched the footage of the hit. He just remembers the impact it had on his life. His eyes were jittery for a month. He couldn’t walk straight for a week. Occasionally, he’d try and sit down in a chair in class, and miss. At a hometown high-school football game with his mother, he lost his balance while walking up the bleachers, and fell face first into a woman’s crotch. For a star athlete who had realistic dreams of playing in the NFL, it was a humiliating, humbling experience.

“It’s just the equilibrium will, at any time, disappear,” he told ThinkProgress in a phone interview this month. “I still struggle with that now. I have to stumble and catch myself. It happens quite frequently.”

Pettus, who hasn’t played a down of football (or any contact sport for that matter) since that fateful September evening in 1989, is one of hundreds of plaintiffs currently suing the NCAA, as well as various member conferences and schools, for their carelessness and inaction when it comes to brain injury prevention, education, and treatment.

He still loves football, and was among the millions of fans watching the classic national championship game between Georgia and Alabama on Monday night, which Alabama won in overtime. But, after decades of personal and professional struggles caused by mood swings, an inability to focus, and memory loss associated with the brain damage he suffered playing collegiate football, he is ready for the NCAA to be held accountable.

“I have to stumble and catch myself. It happens quite frequently.”

“The school is making money. The NCAA is making money. Everybody’s making money and then us poor kids are out there banging ourselves up,” Pettus said. “And when it’s all said and done, we’re sent out there in the world to fend for ourselves. That’s not fair. There should be some sort of restitution set aside for future medical issues.”

Hundreds upon hundreds of individual lawsuits dealing with concussion management have been filed against the NCAA in recent years. In 2014, the NCAA settled one class-action suit for $75 million that was to be distributed for medical monitoring services for athletes. But that settlement did not preclude future class-action lawsuits against the NCAA addressing personal injury claims, treatment, and economic loss. That’s where the current lawsuit comes in.

More than 100 plaintiffs have joined Pettus in an ongoing class-action lawsuit, which alleges that the NCAA knew about the risks of repeated head impacts for decades but did nothing to educate or protect its students, and still has substandard safety protocols regarding brain injuries to this day.

Right now, the class action suit is floating four test cases through the legal system, including the case of Zack Langston, an outside linebacker for Division II Pittsburgh State from 2007-2010. According to the complaint, Langston sustained over 100 concussions in college, but was often told to just “shake it off” and return to the game or practice — there was no “return to play” protocol in place. Towards the end of his college days, Langston began suffering from severe anxiety, stress, memory loss, mood swings, and depression. Then he began devising a plan to end his own life.

Despite the support of his family and friends, and a desire to get better, Langston followed through on that plan on February 24, 2014, shooting himself in the chest so that his brain could be studied. Researchers at the Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) Center at Boston University found that the suffered from Stage II/IV CTE, a chronic brain disease associated with repeated hits to the head that can only be diagnosed posthumously. Langston was only 26. He had a two-year-old daughter.

Most of the national conversation around concussions and CTE has been associated with NFL players — a study at Boston University last summer found that 110 of the 111 deceased players examined were diagnosed with CTE. However, football can lead to permanent brain damage in amateur athletes as well, and the NCAA has been even more hesitant to put safety protocols in place than the NFL.

The NCAA didn’t adopt an official concussion policy until 2010, when it called for member institutions to have concussion management plans for its student-athletes. But the NCAA still doesn’t have a uniform policy that all member institutions must follow — it leaves it totally up to the schools to develop a protocol they deem best, based on several criteria. Two years ago, an investigation by STAT News found that the NCAA had set no limits on the number of permissible concussions, and so it’s up to each university to decide when an athlete is medically disqualified. This leads to situations where a player is disqualified from playing football by one school, and then simply transfers to another school to play there.

The NCAA’s lack of protocol is staggering, particularly considering the organization first acknowledged the dangers of concussions back in 1933 in its Medical Handbook for Schools and Colleges, as reported by Travis Waldron for ThinkProgress in his timeline on the NCAA’s history with concussions.

Eighty-five years ago, the NCAA said that teams “often overlooked” the seriousness of concussions, and recommended rest, supervision, x-rays, and even hospital treatment for players who suffer concussions. But it took over 60 years for the NCAA to adopt its first concussion guidelines, which were non-binding, not at all focused on prevention, and only established after Randall Dick, the NCAA’s Assistant Director of Sports Scientists, published an article finding that “concussions accounted for at least 60 percent of head injuries in each of the sports monitored.”

But whatever knowledge the NCAA and its member schools had about the impact of brain injuries, they certainly kept it to themselves. Pettus said there were never any official concussion monitoring or prevention discussions when he was at Richmond, though he did occasionally sit out from practices or games, and was advised by neurologists not to play football anymore when a scan revealed he had a bruised brain stem.

“I got used and abused, and then they swept me off to the side.”

Pettus had been a good student before his final concussion. But afterward, he struggled with his studies, though he did graduate with a double major in sociology and communications. After school, he was unable to hold down a steady job. He couldn’t focus, couldn’t manage his time, and couldn’t temperamentally handle the pressures associated with office jobs. At home, he found himself fighting frequently with his wife and son. He felt like a failure, and was extremely ashamed that he wasn’t able to be the provider he’d planned on being.

It didn’t occur to him that the brain injuries he suffered in football could be having a long-term impact on his quality of life until a few years ago, when he started hearing about CTE on the news. He decided to go get a brain scan. The results were alarming — his brain was so damaged with shrinkage, bruising, and clots, that the neurologist was surprised he was still functioning independently.

He still loves football. But something has to change. He hopes this lawsuit is a start.

“It’s ownership. It’s slavery. They give you an education, which is great, but they own you,” he said. “I got used and abused, and then they swept me off to the side.”