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Stanford Runner Becomes First Active D-I Athlete to Sue NCAA Over Concussions

Jessica Tonn, a senior cross-country and track & field runner at Stanford University, became the first active D-I athlete to sue the National Collegiate Athletic Association over concussions on Wednesday, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Tonn filed her case, which alleges that the NCAA "failed to implement regulations that would properly protect student-athletes from the risks associated with concussions," with the U.S. District Court for the North District of Illinois. She further suggests that the NCAA "suppressed and kept secret from student-athletes, information about the extent of concussion injuries in NCAA sports and their long-term consequences."

If the case goes to trial and Tonn emerges victorious, it could set a precedent for youth-athletes suing organizations over concussion-related damages. As such, it has major implications for all youth-athletes, not just those in college.

Specifically, Tonn accused the NCAA of failing to correct the coaching of "tackling, checking, or playing methodologies that cause head injuries," and of neglecting to educate coaches, athletic trainers, and student-athletes about the possible signs and symptoms of concussions. By failing to do so, the association "failed to meet its responsibility to safeguard student-athletes," she suggests.

According to the lawsuit, Tonn suffered a head injury while participating in track and field, and "is in need of medical monitoring." It fails to specify the details of her head injury, however.

If the case does go to trial, Tonn may have a difficult time proving the NCAA at fault. The NCAA could use a similar defense as the National Football League reportedly planned to use; namely, that many of the concussion-related complications occurred before she and her fellow student-athletes arrived at college. She would also have to prove that the NCAA knew about the potential long-term ramifications of concussions and deliberately hid that knowledge from student-athletes.

While Tonn is the first active D-I athlete to sue the NCAA over concussions, former D-I athletes and active non-D-I athletes have similar cases already in place.

Adrian Arrington, a former football player at Eastern Illinois University, filed a class action lawsuit back in September 2011 that accuses the association of knowing about the consequences of concussions, yet choosing to ignore those studies at the expense of player safety. That same month, two former college football players made many of the same accusations as Arrington did in a separate suit.

It will likely take years before any of these lawsuits reach a resolution. (Welcome to the legal process!) However, if the NFL's ongoing difficulties with its own series of concussion lawsuits are any indication, the NCAA could be facing a costly settlement in the years ahead.

The NFL reached a tentative $765 million settlement in the concussion-related lawsuits filed by thousands of former players back in August 2013, but U.S. District Judge Anita Brody rejected the settlement in January. In her decision, she expressed the concern that "not all retired NFL football players who ultimately receive a qualifying diagnosis, or their related claimants, will be paid."

If $765 million isn't adequate to compensate professional players in one sport, what could the NCAA be facing with collegiate athletes in dozens of sports?

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