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NCAA Sued for Failing to Protect Players From Concussions

A class action lawsuitRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader was filed against the NCAA on Monday on behalf of current and former football players, alleging that the organization has failed to adequately protect them from concussions.

More specifically, the suit argues that the NCAA knew about the consequences of concussions and other head injuries, but chose to ignore the studies at the expense of player safety.

That sound you heard was all 50 state high school athletic associations gulping.

Loudly.

If a judge rules in the plaintiffs' favor here, it's entirely possible that high school associations could be the next legal target.

"For over 30 years, the NCAA has failed its student-athletes—choosing instead to sacrifice them on an altar of money and profits," the lawsuit reads. "The NCAA has engaged in a long-established pattern of negligence and inaction with respect to concussions and concussion-related maladies sustained by its student-athletes, all the while profiting immensely from those same student-athletes."

The suit notes that the NCAA passed a rule in 1976 prohibiting football players from leading with the head when blocking or tackling. However, it alleges that "student-athletes continued to be coached and trained to use all portions of their helmets to block, tackle, butt, spear, ram, and/or injure opposing players by hitting with their helmeted heads" even after the regulation was passed.

The NCAA is specifically criticized in the lawsuit for failing to correct coaches who teach dangerous tackling methods, not implementing system-wide return-to-play guidelines for student-athletes who have sustained concussions, and not setting up a support system for student-athletes who deal with concussion-related symptoms, even years after graduation.

The suit does note that the NCAA approved rules on Aug. 13, 2010, requiring members to have a concussion management plan in place. But the NCAA didn't go nearly far enough, according to the lawsuit.

"Boiled down to its essence, the plan rejects any measure of responsibility for the NCAA, its member schools, and the coaching staff of individual teams; and instead, puts the burden squarely on the shoulders of student-athletes—the same student athletes who have just sustained fresh head trauma—to seek out medical attention, or decide whether to seek it in the first place," the lawsuit states.

The chief plaintiff of the case is 25-year-old Adrian Arrington, a former football player and current student at Eastern Illinois University, who suffered at least five concussions during his four-year playing career. According to the suit, "at no time was Arrington coached on how to make safer tackles."

The first three times Arrington sustained a concussion, he was allowed to return to play the next day, according to the suit. A 2003 study by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, partially funded by the NCAA, concluded that on average, student-athletes required a full seven days of recovery time after a concussion before returning to their pre-concussion baseline.

This lawsuit marks the first time that the NCAA as a whole, and not its individual member institutions, has been sued over concussions.

The plaintiffs are seeking "medical monitoring and financial recovery for long-term and chronic injuries, financial losses, expenses and intangible losses suffered ... as a result of the NCAA's carelessness, negligence, and concealment of information."

"The NCAA has turned a blind eye to this issue for too long," said Joseph Siprut, the attorney who filed the suit, in a press releaseRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader. "With mounting scientific and medical evidence establishing the link between onfield head injuries and debilitating effects later in life, the time for action is now and not a single day later. These student-athletes need help and we intend to force the NCAA's hand."

Schooled in Sports' reaction: For one, here's guessing the alarms have been sounded over at the NCAA.

The lawsuit accuses the NCAA of knowing about the consequences of concussions since the early 1970s, and cites similar studies partially funded by the NCAA from the early 2000s. It seems as though it would be especially difficult for NCAA officials to deny all knowledge of the latter studies, given that they footed part of the bill.

One of the unique components of the lawsuit is the attention given to safe tackling techniques. Given the padding in helmets these days, and the claims that certain helmets can reduce concussion risk, is it any wonder that football players still lead with their heads when they tackle? Especially if their coaches are reportedly conditioning them to do so?

Just listen to what Darren Woodson, former safety for the Dallas Cowboys, told ESPN's Mike Wilbon for a Commentary published today:

"I'm completely sensitive to the desire to reduce head injuries and protect players as much as possible," Woodson says. "But from 8 years old, you're taught when you play defense to 'separate the player from the ball.' So, it's innate. You 'put your hat on the ball,' which [the quarterback] often holds high."

Need more proof? An article in the Albuquerque Journal last month features a Colorado State linebacker who echoes Woodson's "put your hat on the ball" line as the secret behind his on-field success.

If the plaintiffs can demonstrate clear evidence that college football coaches are still training players to lead with their heads when they tackle, the NCAA's going to have a lot of explaining to do.

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