In a developing story reported by the AP late last week, the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) has been met with more than 300 lawsuits from former college football players who all claim concussions they suffered on the field were mistreated, leading to escalating medical problems — from headaches and depression to more serious issues such as early-onset Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease.
First Wave of Lawsuits
In 2016, the lawsuits started rolling in for college sports’ major governing body, and more than 200 cases were recently filed by Edelson PC, a Chicago-based firm that specializes in class-action cases and Raizner Slania LLP in Houston. The majority of the cases were filed in the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Illinois, the state where the NCAA is headquartered. Under state sovereignty laws, many public universities cannot be sued, but private universities such as Southern California and Notre Dame are not afforded such protection. For this reason, these claims are coming against the governing college sports body and not the individual educational institutions.
Challenges of the Lawsuits
While the number of cases may seem formidable, Gabe Feldman, director of Tulane University’s sports law program told the AP that they are difficult cases. “They’re difficult because in many cases the plaintiff is clearly suffering and the plaintiff has clearly suffered. But the challenge is proving that the NCAA, the member institution or the conference or some combination caused that harm and had some legal duty to the plaintiff and breached that duty. Each factor of the analysis could be difficult for the plaintiff to prove. Perhaps the most difficult is the causation piece.”
Previous Settlement Against the NCAA
One of the lead attorneys in the latest concussion campaign, Jay Edelson, has been pursuing personal injury damages for former college athletes for the last few years. He was a part of a previous concussion case against the NCAA that resulted in a $75 million settlement. The NCAA agreed to pay $70 million toward medical monitoring for former college athletes, and another $5 million toward medical research and payments of up to $5,000 toward individual players who claimed injuries. That settlement included an agreement that a large personal injury class-action suit could not be brought against the NCAA, but individual lawsuits were permitted on a per school basis. This explains why the current cases are not packaged as a class-action suit. Edelson has voiced criticism against the settlement, along with some of the plaintiffs, among them former Eastern Illinois defensive back Adrian Arrington who initiated the case. They have collectively fought against its approval in court.
Promising Precedent in 2018 Suit
According to the AP article, in 2018, three days into a trial, the NCAA reached a settlement with Debra Jardin-Ploetz, the widow of a former Texas football player Greg Ploetz, who played defense for the Longhorns in the late 60s. The case was unrelated to the 300 concussion lawsuits, but Jay Edelson feels that the results was encouraging.
“That case that was tried in Texas, was really in the heart of football country. So our view is it was one of the most difficult jurisdictions to get a really great jury verdict,” Edelson told AP. “Even with that, once the affirmative evidence was put on by the plaintiffs, the NCAA settled. We think that is a big statement because our view is if they realize that they can’t allow a jury to decide it in the heart of football country, where is their safe haven?”
In a statement to the AP, NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy said the NCAA is undaunted by the recent filings. “These copycat complaints are full of misleading and inaccurate declarations like the previously filed similar lawsuits and public statements made by the small group of lawyers submitting these claims,” Remy said. “More lawsuits do not change our resolve and will not impact the NCAA’s commitment to student-athlete safety. The NCAA looks forward to correcting the factual and legal record.”
Current Case Movement & Challenges
The cases are already starting to move through the courts, with a judge ruling against the NCAA’s request for dismissal on statute of limitations grounds. The cases go as far back as 1952 and up to 2010, when the NCAA started requiring a concussion protocol for its membership.
“It’s incredibly difficult to prove that an injury or disease that they are currently suffering from was caused by action or inaction taken in some cases many, many years ago,” Feldman told the AP.
It will be interesting to see how these cases play out, and the precedent they set for future cases. Regardless of the legal outcome, the risk of concussion and its long-term effects are finally being understood. While that might greatly affect the future of football, it’s hopeful that young players will be more protected from long-term consequences than their predecessors.