Chicago, IL: Two former college football players who suffer from the residual effects of head injuries have filed a class-action lawsuit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), accusing the governing body of neglecting to protect student-athletes from concussions and their aftermath.
Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois the complaint accuses the NCAA of turning a blind eye to coaches who teach players to use their heads for tackling, failing to establish a NCAA-wide system for screening head injuries and shirking its financial obligations to injured student-athletes who need medical treatment after they've left college.
The case alleges that despite a mounting body of scientific evidence linking concussions to depression, dementia and early-onset Alzheimer's, among a host of other medical problems, the NCAA has failed to enforce the safety measures it introduced in the 1970s.
The lawsuit would force the NCAA to institute a medical monitoring program to track the long-term effects of head trauma as they manifest themselves in former football players, and to pay for any resulting medical care.
The complaint claims that NCAA football coaches continue to encourage players to use tackling methods that promote head trauma, including helmet-to-helmet hits. The harshest penalty ever imposed on coaches who teach this tactic was a letter of reprimand, according to the complaint.
Teams are assessed 15-yard penalties for dangerous tackling and violators can be ejected from a game or suspended. But the NCAA fails to address the consequences for players who were coached to use their helmets to make the tackle, the lawsuit states.
Under the NCAA system, student-athletes are permitted to return to play the next calendar day after sustaining a concussion, meaning they can be back on the practice field less than 24 hours after a serious brain injury, putting their health in peril, the lawsuit states.
In 2003, a University of North Carolina study partially-funded by the NCAA found that college football players require a full seven days to regain their pre-concussion abilities. It also found that athletes with a history of concussions were more likely to sustain future concussions. Researchers suggested that athletes with multiple concussions should be informed of the risks of returning to football before they make the decision.
The NCAA has yet to establish such a protocol, according to the lawsuit. Instead, it relies on its member schools to self-police their own return-to-play policies, putting the onus on the dazed football player to report injuries and seek medical attention, the complaint states.
Further, the NCAA has yet to develop a system for identifying at-risk players, nor guidelines that would establish a criteria for deciding if and when they should return to football, according to the complaint.
The lead plaintiffs in the suit are former University of Central Arkansas wide receiver Derek K. Owens and former Northwestern University offensive lineman Alex Rucks, who say their lives have been fundamentally altered as the result of brain trauma that could have been prevented.
Owens, 22, was hit in the head from behind while taking part in a voluntary practice the summer before his freshman season. According to the complaint, Owens never received medical attention from the team despite feeling dizzy, having difficulty seeing and being unable to drive home. The 2008 incident was the first of numerous head injuries for Owens, who was named Arkansas' Top Offensive Player and one of the state's top Scholar-Athletes his senior year of high school.
The second week of his first season, a linebacker knocked Owens unconscious in practice, according to the lawsuit. UCA's trainers told Owens' roommates he had a "severe concussion" and to wake him up every couple of hours. He sat out for several weeks until he was cleared to return to the practice team. During a 2010 game, Owens was returning a punt when he was leveled by an opposing player, who later called the play "the highlight of his career," according to a story in the Tulsa World. Owens experienced memory loss, headaches, an inability to concentrate, anxiety and depression. His grades plummeted despite his once-sterling academic record. In May of 2011, he dropped out of school and football as a result of the debilitating effects of repeated head trauma.
Rucks, who played at Northwestern from 2004 to 2008, was never formally diagnosed with a brain injury, but suffered numerous blows to his head that led to symptoms consistent with a concussion. The NCAA never tested or followed-up with Rucks to determine whether he'd been concussed, or if he was experiencing post-concussion syndrome, the suit alleges.
Since his playing days, Owens has suffered from the symptoms of post-concussion syndrome, including the loss of concentration and memory, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit alleges the NCAA never encouraged football players to report or complain about their physical well-being, nor does it educate players about head-injury prevention or the telltale symptoms of a concussion.
The lawsuit, a class action, seeks to represent current or former NCAA football players who have medical or team records indicating they sustained a concussion(s) or suffered concussion-like symptoms while playing football at an NCAA school, and who have, since ending their NCAA careers, developed chronic headaches, dizziness, dementia, Alzheimer's disease or other physical and mental problems as a result of the concussion and have incurred medical expenses from such injuries.
All class members would be notified that they may require frequent medical monitoring. NCAA-wide return-to-play guidelines would be established. The NCAA would mandate that team physicians learn to detect concussions and sub-concussions, as well as determining when a player is at an increased risk of harm. It also seeks to redress the intangible losses suffered by these class members.