Plaintiff list in NCAA concussion lawsuit growing, schools bracing

The class-action lawsuit against the NCAA filed by three former players over concussions could grow its plaintiff list exponentially based on early research from one of the nine lawyers involved.

Michael Hausfield with Hausfield LLP -- which also represents plaintiffs in the Ed O’Bannon case over player likeness that could shake up the NCAA amateurism model -- told his firm is fielding calls from scores of former players asking to evaluate their situations and possibly join the case.

The suit alleges, in part, the NCAA failed to provide players with proper protocols and long-term education over the effects of brain trauma.

Former Tennessee players Chris Walker and Ben Martin and former North Carolina State player Dan Ahern are part of the suit filed in federal court in Chattanooga, Tenn., earlier this month The plaintiffs seek an NCAA-funded medical monitoring program for former football players.

Hausfield said the potential new plaintiffs have expressed cases from “stingers to bell-ringers to where the athlete collapsed on the field, immobile.”

“These are athletes who played at their schools and went on to distinguish themselves in other careers but have noticed they have had defects consistent with what has been related to repeated head trauma,” Hausfield said.

NCAA concussion litigation hasn’t reached the levels of the NFL, which settled its case with the league’s 4,500-plus plaintiffs for $765 million.

The NCAA is considering a settlement with the plaintiffs in a concussion suit filed in Illinois in 2011 brought by former Eastern Illinois player Adrian Arrington. That case is currently seeking class-action approval. The Tennessee case applies to 50 states and former players while the Arrington case covers 18 states, Hausfield said.

The scope of NCAA litigation potential over head trauma is broad when considering the volume of players (rosters of 105 players on 126 FBS schools) and no federal labor exemptions for schools (NCAA athletes aren’t employees).

As the Birmingham New points out, lawyers heatedly jockey for NCAA concussion litigation positioning nearly 100 years after Theodore Roosevelt, the original NCAA point man, urged the game to become safer.

“Given the number of schools and players involved, this directly connects to high schools and pee wee leagues, and this becomes the major national lynchpin to football in general,” Hausfield said.

Several athletic directors that spoke to acknowledge the awareness all schools must have over not just concussion treatment and protocol – but a trickle-down effect of litigation that affects NCAA members.

The NCAA provides catastrophic insurance, which activates once an athlete’s injury-related expenses exceed $90,000.

No athletic directors interviewed said their schools have sought concussion-specific insurance to protect from litigation if lawsuits target individual schools, though some public schools are part of in-state insurance programs.

“We’re in a lot of conversations that could help put the university in a good position relative to lawsuits, but that’s not the driving force for it,” said Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour, who is collaborating with Cal's dean of the graduate school on in-depth concussion initiatives and research. “What are we doing to help (players)? What are we doing to protect?”

Charlotte athletic director Judy Rose, whose 49ers debuted their football program this year, says the school has stringent protocol on players with concussion-like symptoms, including at least two mandatory doctor visits and no practice until at least six days from any incident, minor or severe. “We think we’re giving it our best shot,” she said.

No doubt, the recent report from the Chronicle of Higher Education uncovering the way coaches often overpower trainers on decisions about concussed players returning to the field has garnered attention in the athletic community.

C-USA commissioner Britton Banowsky said a systemic shift is necessary to “empower our trainers.”

Conferences should constantly push for effective concussion treatment, Banowsky said.

“We talk a good game, but we’re not really being highly innovative,” Banowsky said. “We’re still doing things old school. I think we have a higher responsibility to our student-athletes.”


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