CHICAGO (AP) — The NCAA, the powerful collegiate sports governing body, agreed Tuesday to settle a class-action head injury lawsuit by creating a $70 million fund to diagnose thousands of current and former college athletes to determine if they suffered brain trauma playing football, hockey, soccer and other contact sports.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association also agreed to implement a single return-to-play policy spelling out how all teams must treat players who received head blows, according to a Tuesday filing in U.S. District Court in Chicago. Critics have accused the NCAA of giving too much discretion to hundreds of individual schools about when athletes can go back into games, putting them at risk.
The issue of concussions and their lasting impact has exploded onto the U.S. sports scene in recent years, especially in American football. The NCAA has also come under increased scrutiny as a debate ramps up over compensating amateur athletes who receive scholarships but are otherwise not paid by the booming college sports industry.
Unlike a proposed settlement in a similar lawsuit against the NFL, this deal stops short of setting aside money to pay players who suffered brain trauma. Instead, athletes can sue individually for damages and the NCAA-funded tests to gauge the extent of neurological injuries could establish grounds for doing that.
The filing serves as notice to the federal judge overseeing the class-action case that the parties struck a deal after nearly a year of negotiations.
Prior to the settlement, plaintiffs were scathing about how the NCAA handled the head injury issue for decades.
Instead of adopting stricter protections for athletes, the lawsuit said the NCAA chose “to sacrifice them on an altar of money and profits,” an approach that occurred even though the NCAA had known for at least a decade “of the correlation between concussions and depression, dementia and early onset Alzheimer’s disease.”
The plaintiffs cited a 2010 internal NCAA survey that found almost half of college trainers put athletes with signs of a concussion back into the same game.
The settlement applies to all men and women who participated in basketball, football, ice hockey, soccer, wrestling, field hockey and lacrosse. Those who’ve played at any time over the last half-century or more at one of the more than 1,000 NCAA member schools qualify for the medical exams. That means all athletes playing and those who participated decades ago could undergo the tests and potentially follow up with damage claims.
Joseph Siprut, the lead plaintiffs’ attorney who spearheaded talks with the NCAA, said the sometimes-tough negotiations ended with a deal that will make college athletics safer.
“I wouldn’t say these changes solve the safety problems, but they do reduce the risks,” the Chicago attorney said Tuesday. “It’s changed college sports forever.”
The NCAA, which admits no wrongdoing in the settlement and has denied understating the dangers of concussions, hailed the settlement.
“This agreement’s proactive measures will ensure student-athletes have access to high quality medical care by physicians with experience in the diagnosis, treatment and management of concussions,” NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline said in a statement.
To keep the NCAA from having to hold unwieldy talks with multiple plaintiffs, 10 lawsuits were consolidated into the one case in Chicago, where the first lawsuit was filed in 2011. Combined, the suits identified several dozen athletes by name as having suffered brain trauma.
The lead plaintiff is Adrian Arrington, a former safety at Eastern Illinois. He said he endured five concussions while playing, some so severe he has said he couldn’t recognize his parents afterward. Subsequent headaches, memory loss, seizures and depression made it difficult to work or even care for his children, filings said.
Another named plaintiff is former Central Arkansas wide receiver Derek K. Owens. After several concussions, he said he found he could no longer retain what he had just studied. His symptoms became so severe he dropped out of school in 2011, telling his mother: “I feel like a 22-year-old with Alzheimer’s.”
Among other settlement terms, all athletes will take baseline neurological tests to start each year to help doctors determine the severity of any concussion during the season; concussion education will be mandated for coaches and athletes; and a new, independent Medical Science Committee will oversee the medical testing.
The NCAA admits no wrongdoing in the settlement and has denied understating the dangers of concussions. As proof it has tried to mitigate the risks, it has cited recent changes in equipment, medical practices and playing rules, including ones prohibiting football players from targeting an opponent’s head or neck.
The NCAA also announced in May a three-year, $30 million concussion study co-funded by the U.S. Defense Department. Plans call for initial data collection on about 7,200 athletes from 12 colleges, increasing to 37,000 athletes at 30 sites, with the aim of better understanding concussions and developing better prevention methods.
The settlement is still subject to approval by U.S. District Judge John Lee, in a process that could take months. He must grant preliminary approval and then, after affected athletes weigh in, give a final OK.