Former Ohio State All-American Ray Griffin, the younger brother of two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin, claims his life began going downhill after he suffered a concussion as a junior in college.
In an interview with CBS Sports, Griffin said he became "a different person" in future years, including getting involved with drugs and alcohol and making "major mistakes" in his life. For the longest time, Griffin said, he didn't understand why he acted that way. He believes he now knows.
According to Griffin, his recent participation in a Boston University study showed the odds are "extremely high" that he has chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease linked with repetitive brain trauma. For now, CTE can only be diagnosed after a person dies.
"I thank God I'm alive today," Griffin said. "For the longest time I was preoccupied with dying and now I know why. I was always thinking, 'I'm going to die. I'm going to die. I'm not going to get that far.' My depression was so bad I could just cry. I'd be driving in the car and just bust out crying."
This month, Griffin became arguably the highest-profile player to legally challenge college football over how the game once handled concussions. Four more class-action lawsuits were recently filed in an attempt to get money for ex-college players who claim they're suffering from injuries related to head trauma.
Griffin and former Michigan starting linebacker Steve Strinko are each separately suing the NCAA and Big Ten. Ex-Tennessee defensive back O.J. Owens is suing the NCAA and SEC. Ex-Duke defensive back Derrick Lee is suing the NCAA, ACC and Duke.
Griffin, a member of Ohio State's athletic Hall of Fame, was a three-year starter from 1974-77 and a first-team All-American safety in 1977. The Buckeyes went 29-6-1 and won three Big Ten championships in Griffin's three seasons as a starter. He later played seven years in the NFL for the Cincinnati Bengals.
Griffin comes from Ohio State royalty. His older brother Archie is one of college football's living legends.
"I don't talk to Archie about my personal business and he doesn't talk about his," Ray Griffin said on the day the lawsuit was filed. "This is my fight. It has nothing to do with him. He doesn't even know I'm taking this on, but he will find out. This is something I want to do. I need to do this, for me and for others."
Following the pattern of similar cases, Griffin's lawsuit alleges the NCAA and Big Ten should have been fully aware of the growing dangers of multiple concussions beginning in 1952 until the NCAA began protocols in 2010. Some lawyers who have worked on other concussion cases are skeptical that attorney Jay Edelson's series of class-action lawsuits will succeed given legal challenges. They're also concerned that blanketing the country with class-action lawsuits isn't the best approach for success.
A federal judge is expected to soon finalize the NCAA's $75 million settlement from consolidated concussion lawsuits. The settlement would allow ex-athletes in all sports -- if they pass a screening questionnaire -- to get tested for cognitive problems over a 50-year period. What the deal won't do is pay for medical care if the tests or other doctors determine the athletes need treatment. A status hearing on the settlement is scheduled for July 14.
In an opinion earlier this year, U.S. District Judge John Lee said the facts produced in discovery do not show the NCAA's alleged conduct injured college athletes in the same way as conclusions reached in the NFL concussion case. The need to make "individual, fact-intensive determinations as to liability with respect to each class member eclipses any common issues as to whether the NCAA had a duty to protect players from concussion-related risks, breached that duty, and fraudulently concealed those risks," Lee wrote.
Griffin is an example of an ex-NFL player now suing college football governing bodies after likely not getting paid from the NFL settlement. A plaintiff in the NFL litigation, Griffin said he doesn't think he will get an award based on his current diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment.
The NFL reached a $900 million settlement with more than 5,000 retired players. Players diagnosed with certain neurological disorders can receive payments of up to $5 million each. Critics complain the settlement doesn't provide awards for players who are later diagnosed with CTE. An appellate court that upheld the settlement noted there's no current way to test for CTE in the living, and many symptoms associated with the disease -- such as memory loss -- are eligible for compensation.
"Guys like me, we were not represented in the (NFL) case," said Griffin, who is part of a study that could soon allow living people to be diagnosed with CTE. "They had all my medical records. They knew my symptoms, and most guys in the NFL are just like me."
Griffin said injuries incurred in football ended up damaging his income. Ray and Archie Griffin filed for bankruptcy in 1981, according to a United Press International article that year. They were partners in a defunct chain of sporting goods stores in central Ohio. Ray Griffin claimed debts of $539,100 and assets of $93,350.
Court records show that in 2004, Ray Griffin sued the city of Heath, Ohio, alleging misconduct by police officers due to his race. Griffin claimed he was sprayed with mace by a police officer during a dispute over moving his Mercedes Benz and Lincoln Continental from the street due to a snow emergency. The parties agreed to dismiss the case in 2006.
Griffin, who turns 60 this month, said he has seen behavioral changes for years in former Ohio State players, including the recent death of Willie "Chico" Nelson that police called a likely suicide. Griffin acknowledged he can't know for certain if ex-college players are dying due to CTE, but he believes that to be the case. When asked what he hopes to get from suing the NCAA and Big Ten, Griffin said, "You've got to make it right," but added he's not sure how.
"I know it's not going to be perfect," he said. "But it's got to be something where everyone is at least satisfied, something that shows the NCAA, the Big Ten, college football knows that they did harm and they're admitting they did harm and they want to make it right with you."
Griffin questioned why the NCAA did not properly address the dangers of head trauma earlier given that "punch-drunk syndrome" was first described for boxers in the 1920s. The syndrome is formally known as dementia pugilistica, a type of CTE that can affect athletes who suffer concussions. "The reason I didn't want (to be a boxer) was I never wanted to be punch drunk," Griffin said. "Never did I know that playing football would cause me to be punch drunk."
In recent years, football has tried to make the game safer through rules changes, concussion protocol and education. Still, Griffin said he would not play football again knowing what he knows now and doesn't want his grandchildren to play.
An interesting question in these series of NCAA lawsuits is to what extent college football players really want to sue their old school. Technically, Griffin is not suing Ohio State. Edelson, the attorney leading the cases, said some of the lawsuits don't name the university as a defendant because state schools often have sovereign immunity from liability.
Still, Griffin continues to live in Columbus, Ohio. He knows how his lawsuit may be received in the college football hotbed where he lives.
"I'm going to catch a lot of flak," he said. "But that's OK because those people who are giving me flak, they really don't understand and I'm not going to blame them for that. But I'm not going to change my mind. ... Football is killing a lot of people and we need to become more aware of this. It is a serious, serious problem."
Wrongful death lawsuit vs. NCAA is getting settled
On the eve of trial, a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family of a Division III football player against the NCAA is getting settled, according to a court filing Thursday in Rockville, Maryland. The Derek Sheely trial against the NCAA, ex-Frostburg State employees and helmet manufacturer Schutt Sports had been scheduled to start Monday and last 24 days.
On Thursday, the court docket showed a joint line saying the case is being stayed for 60 days "to complete the settlement process." Terms of the settlement were not disclosed. Sheely attorney Paul Anderson said in a statement: "The trial has been postponed to allow the parties to complete the process of settling this matter." The NCAA declined to comment beyond the court filing.
Sheely was a Frostburg State football player who collapsed during a 2011 practice after suffering a head injury and later died. Two years later, his family sued the NCAA, head coach Tom Rogish, running backs coach Jamie Schumacher, trainer Michael Sweitzer Jr., and Schutt Sports. The Sheely family claimed the Frostburg State employees missed multiple opportunities to treat their son's head injury, and the NCAA failed to implement concussion rules or investigate his death.
Sheely's parents previously said they never wanted to sue the NCAA and did so to get the association's attention to make football safer. In 2015, Sheely's father Ken discussed a list of items he said the family once requested from the NCAA in mediation: NCAA concussion rules named after their son; standardized hitting limits at practices for all sports in all NCAA divisions; banning certain practice drills, including the one Derek was participating in when he collapsed; and a Derek Sheely Safety Award to recognize players who speak up for teammates who won't sit down with concussion symptoms.
The NCAA argued in court that it has no legal duty to protect players because it's a sports organization. But in a sign of how concussions are evolving before the courts, Montgomery County Circuit Judge David Boynton denied the NCAA's motion for summary judgment in April, setting the stage for a potential trial. Boynton determined that the NCAA has a "special relationship" since its mission statement is to protect college athletes and the type of head injury that allegedly killed Sheely -- second-impact syndrome from multiple concussions -- is not a known inherent risk of playing football.
A five-week trial could have been embarrassing publicity for the NCAA. For the Sheely family, there was no guarantee of a long-term victory given certain state laws in Maryland and a 1994 appellate ruling regarding the liability of sports organizations.
Scholarship plaintiffs seek TV deals from Power Five
Lawyers in the scholarship lawsuit seeking to let college athletes be paid filed a motion to compel the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 to produce financial, media and marketing contracts. This stems from the Shawne Alston/Martin Jenkins lawsuits against the NCAA and five major conferences, a case led in part by prominent attorney Jeffrey Kessler.
In a recent court filing, the Alston/Jenkins lawyers said the SEC has agreed to produce most of its contracts, including agreements with ESPN and CBS. It's subject to an agreed-upon redactional protocol in which a judge can resolve disputes. ESPN agreed it won't redact any provisions related to payment terms of the contracts, according to the filing.
The plaintiffs said they continue to negotiate with the Pac-12 and Big 12, but the Big Ten and ACC have declined to enter into any further negotiations. The filing said Fox, which has media deals with the Pac-12, Big 12 and Big Ten, believes its contracts should not be produced at all.
The Alston and Jenkins plaintiffs said these documents are relevant because the NCAA and conferences "are grounding their defenses on arguments relating to financial, consumer interest, and student welfare issues." The defendants have claimed that allowing athletes to be paid would mean reduced scholarships and opportunities for athletes.
A key issue for the Alston/Jenkins plaintiffs is proving consumer demand won't be hurt if athletes are paid. Given that TV money continues to escalate even as football and basketball players got paid for the full cost of attendance last year, the plaintiffs wrote that "shows that loosening restrictions on payments to athletes has had no adverse impact on the attractiveness of these media properties to networks and consumers."
The plaintiffs said they also want the documents to show contract terms illustrating the increasing time demands imposed on athletes with weeknight games. They cited North Carolina coach Roy Williams' outrage at late-night start times for TV, in which he said, "We sacrifice your third child and anything else for the dollar." One defense by the NCAA and conferences against paying players is the quality of the collegiate experience while integrating them with other students.
The NCAA and conferences are trying to dismiss the Jenkins case, arguing that its merits have already been settled by an appellate court's decision in the Ed O'Bannon case. A hearing is scheduled for Aug. 2. Hearings and motion deadlines for the Jenkins and Alston cases are currently scheduled through September 2017.
This space will highlight some excellent recent work by college sports media on difficult topics to report.
- With the Nebraska football team's sellout streak in jeopardy, Omaha World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel speaks with fans about their discontent with donations and the detachment of younger fans.
- The NCAA spent about $25 million on outside legal fees in 2015, nearly double what it reported in 2014, according to Steve Berkowitz of USA Today Sports.
- A judge will unseal court documents that could shed light about how much Penn State knew about child sexual abuse allegations against Jerry Sandusky in the 1970s and '80s, wrote Charles Thompson of PennLive.com.
Quote of the Week
"We don't know yet. We'd like to see that."
-- Major Baylor donor and part Texas Rangers owner Bob Simpson on Art Briles possibly returning as coach after a one-year suspension, per The Dallas Morning News. This insane idea by a handful of Baylor boosters looks like it has no legs. But it's another bad look for Baylor as Briles fights his termination related to how Baylor handled rape accusations.