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NCAA Concussion Trial Could Mean Big Changes for Collegiate Football

By: Allan M. Siegel

It has been over a year since a landmark $1 billion settlement was finalized between the National Football League (NFL) and thousands of former players and families who sought compensation for serious neurological conditions and losses brought about by concussions and brain injuries their sustained during their careers. While many victims in that case have still yet to be paid, the settlement is considered a major victory for players and advocates who claimed the league concealed information about what it knew of long-term risks associated with head injuries. It has also created support for claims brought by athletes in other organizations – including the NCAA.

Trial over whether or not the NCAA failed to adequately protect student athletes began on Wednesday June 11, and it marks the first time NCAA officials will have to publicly testify in court about brain injuries. Their testimony will largely focus on what the NCAA knew about neurological conditions like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), links between those conditions and football, how long they knew of those risks, and whether they concealed information about the dangers faced by players.

The case against the NCAA is based on claims brought by the widow of University of Texas defenseman and linebacker Greg Ploetz, who played from 1968 – 1972. Although he never played professionally in the NFL, Ploetz suffered from a severe form of CTE which caused his death in 2015, and which was diagnosed post-mortem. That finding provided insight into Ploetz’s long struggle with CTE and symptoms such as depression, confusion, and aggression, and why he eventually required full-time living assistance and lost the ability to communicate in full sentences. Recent studies have found CTE in the brains of 99% of former NFL athletes, as well over 90% of former college players.

After the diagnosis, Ploetz’s former wife filed suit against the NCAA for $1 million in damages, and alleged two key points:

  • The NCAA was generally negligent in failing to warn and protect players about conditions like CTE, despite knowing the risks associated with football and repeat concussions; and
  • The NCAA should be held liable for the wrongful death of Ploetz.

The NCAA’s arguments against the claims state that Ploetz knew and understood the dangers of playing a physical sport like football, and therefore is not liable for his death. However, Ploetz played in the late 60s and early 1970s, a time when the NCAA had no policies regarding management of head injuries. Today, collegiate universities are now required to have comprehensive concussion plans when treating athletes, and have implemented many rules for protecting athletes and ensuring they understand risks. These are similar to concussion guidelines in youth and high school sport programs throughout the country, including those in the District of Columbia, which adheres to the DC Youth Athletic Concussion Protection Act drafted by CSCS Partner Joseph Cammarata.

Potential Implications: The Future of Collegiate Football

Although the facts of this case may focus on the story of one former college athlete, its outcome has the potential for big implications in the world of college football. That’s especially true if it can be shown that the NCAA did hide information about what it knew of concussions and conditions like CTE, as failing to disclose known risks could make them liable for not only for Ploetz’s death, but also other former players who died or have suffered as a result of football-related CTE and other conditions, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS).

Opening the door to liability would mean more claims filed by former players and families, the possibility of more testimony and information about what the NCAA knew, and may potentially influence how football is played at the collegiate level, such as limiting how players can tackle one another. Such a result may also place pressure on the NFL to take similar measures in protecting athletes.

CSCS: A Trusted Firm for Brain Injury Victims

As a law firm that has dedicated much of our practice to brain injuries, our team at Chaikin, Sherman, Cammarata & Siegel, P.C. closely tracks news and litigation involving concussions, traumatic brain injury, and the rights of victims. Throughout the years, we’ve also held key roles in organizations like the Brain Injury Association of Metropolitan Washington, DC, and know the importance of preventing serious long-term injuries and disabilities through improved policies, greater awareness, and accountability for those whose negligence led to harm.

Our firm will continue to follow the NCAA concussion lawsuit and its impact on concussion litigation overall. We will also continue to fight for brain injury victims and their families when they reach out to our firm for support and representation. If you have questions about personal injury lawsuits and brain injuries, call (202) 644-8303 or contact us online to speak with a member of our team. We serve clients throughout DC, Maryland, and Virginia.