CHICAGO - The NCAA 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.
Summary of NCAA head-injury settlement
A filing in federal court in Chicago on Tuesday notified a U.S. district judge that lawyers for former college athletes and the NCAA reached a settlement in a class-action lawsuit after nearly a year of talks. Here's a rundown:
KEY TERMS: The NCAA will fund a $70 million program to test current and former athletes for brain injuries. It'll also establish a common return-to-play policy all schools must follow. And it agrees to mandate baseline neurological tests for athletes to help determine the severity of any concussion during the season.
WHO IS COVERED: Men and women who played football, ice hockey, soccer, basketball, wrestling, field hockey and lacrosse. Both current and former players going back decades who suffered concussions or suspect they did also qualify to be tested.
ARE DAMAGES INCLUDED? No. There is no lump sum set aside to pay damages to athletes who suffered debilitating head injuries. However, plaintiffs' lawyers reserve the right to sue for damages on behalf of individual athletes, and the NCAA-funded testing program could help identify candidates for such claims.
WHAT'S NEXT: A federal judge in Chicago must first grant preliminary approval. Before final approval, he will hear from athletes nationwide - some of whom could object to the settlement terms. It's not unusual for a judge to order changes before giving a final OK.
By The Associated Press
College sports' governing body 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.
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. In addition to football, ice hockey and soccer, the settlement also applies to all men and women who participated in basketball, wrestling, field hockey and lacrosse.
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."
He also said that stricter oversight and return-to-play rules should help ensure the viability of football by allaying the fears of parents who are currently inclined to not let their kids play.
"Changes were necessary to preserve the talent well of kids that feeds the game of football," he said. "Absent these kinds of changes, the sport will die."
Phone and email messages seeking comment from the NCAA, based in Indianapolis, were not immediately returned Tuesday morning.
There is no cutoff date for when athletes must have played a designated sport at one of the more than 1,000 NCAA member schools to qualify for the medical exams. That means all athletes currently playing and those who participated decades ago could undergo the tests and potentially follow up with damage claims.
To keep the NCAA from having to hold unwieldy talks with multiple plaintiffs, 10 lawsuits filed from Georgia and South Carolina to Minnesota and Missouri 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.
Plaintiffs' filings say the number of athletes who may require testing to learn if they suffered long-term damage runs into the tens of thousands. They cite NCAA figures that from 2004 to 2009 alone, 29,225 NCAA athletes suffered concussions - about 16,000 in football, 5,751 in women's soccer and 3,374 in men's soccer.
Internal emails unsealed in the lawsuit illustrate how pressure mounted on the NCAA over the issue.
In a Feb. 23, 2010, email, the NCAA's director of government relations, Abe Frank, wondered about debates elsewhere, including in Congress, about recommended new safeguards for young children playing contact sports.
"Do you think this renewed emphasis on youth sports will increase the pressure on the NCAA to do more at the college level?" he asks in the email sent to the NCAA's then-director of health and safety.
David Klossner responded bluntly a few hours later. "Well since we don't currently require anything all steps are higher than ours," he wrote.
Later that year, the NCAA did establish a new head-injury policy that requires each school to have a concussion management plan on hand and it states that athletes should be kept from play for at least a day after a concussion; it also requires players to sign a statement "accepting responsibility for reporting their injuries."
But plaintiffs argued schools put too much of the onus on athletes with little understanding of concussions to self-report injuries. And they blamed a tendency of some teams to hurry concussed players back into games according to patchy, uneven plans and the NCAA's lax enforcement of the concussions policy.
In a 2012 deposition, Klossner conceded the NCAA provides virtually no oversight of concussion management plans and that schools aren't required to submit them to the NCAA. Asked if any schools had been disciplined for having subpar plans, Klossner said, "Not to my knowledge."
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.
Stories of athletes named in NCAA lawsuit
Ten head-injury lawsuits filed against the NCAA were consolidated into one federal class-action suit in Chicago, where a settlement was announced Tuesday. In all of the lawsuits combined, dozens of plaintiffs who said they suffered concussions playing contact sports in college are named. Here are some of their stories:
Stanley Doughty, former South Carolina football player
Doughty, a defensive tackle at South Carolina from 2003 to 2006, describes how he was returned to a 2004 game after a devastating hit left him momentarily paralyzed; he rested for just five minutes in a locker room before going back into the game. After leaving school, the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs signed him as an undrafted free agent but then quickly let him go. According to court filings, they told him he had a serious spinal injury associated with helmet-to-helmet collisions.
Adrian Arrington, former Eastern Illinois football player
Arrington, a strong safety at Eastern Illinois from 2006 to 2009, initiated the first lawsuit in 2011. Arrington says he suffered five concussions playing for EIU - some so severe that he couldn't recognize his parents later in the day. In one deposition, he describes bouts of depression, memory loss, seizures and migraine headaches that made it impossible to work or to adequately care for his three young children. He never would have played college football, he insists, had he foreseen the health consequences.
Angela Palacios, former Ouachita Baptist soccer player
Palacios suffered a concussion during soccer practice at Ouachita Baptist in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, when she and a teammate collided heads as they went for the ball. Days later when she said she didn't feel well enough to practice, she says one coach reacted angrily, accusing her of not "being a team player." She began playing at the school in 2010, but left a year later because of head injury issues. She said she joined the lawsuit because, "I don't want anyone to have to go through what I went through. ... The physical and emotional damages that I had to experience."
Derek K. Owens, former Central Arkansas football player
Owens played wide receiver at Central Arkansas and also excelled academically. But after several concussions, he found he could no longer retain what he'd just studied. According to filings, "He would study for tests, but if he went to sleep he would forget what he had studied, so he started making himself stay up all night out of fear of failing (academically)." His symptoms became so debilitating he dropped out of school in 2011, telling his mother, "I feel like a 22-year-old with Alzheimer's."
Kyle Solomon, former Maine ice hockey player
Solomon suffered multiple concussions as a forward for Maine's ice hockey team from 2008 to 2010. One happened during a nationally televised game in 2009, when he was slammed into the boards and blacked out, according to filings. After receiving seven stitches in the locker room, he returned to the game in the final period. Citing injuries, he left the team his sophomore season. In a deposition, he said his symptoms included depression, crippling migraines, short-temperedness and what he described as an "inability to deal with everyday tasks."
By The Associated Press
In this Nov. 27, 2004 file photo, Bloomington High School running back Adrian Arrington tries to clear a pile of Providence Catholic defenders during the Class 6A championship football game in Champaign, Ill. Arrington, who later went on to play at Eastern Illinois in Charleston, is the lead plaintiff in a class-action head injury lawsuit working its way through federal court in Chicago. The NCAA and the plaintiffs announced a settlement on Tuesday.×
In this Sept. 26, 2009, file photo, Florida Matt Patchan (71) and Marcus Gilbert (76) look on as Florida quarterback Tim Tebow lies on the turf after being sacked during an NCAA college football game against Kentucky in Lexington, Ky. Tebow received a concussion on the play that put him in the hospital for a night. The parties in a class-action head injury lawsuit against the NCAA that deals with concussion issues announced a settlement in a filing in federal court in Chicago on Tuesday.×
In this Jan. 4, 2009 file photo, Maine’s Kyle Solomon (12) chases after New Hampshire’s Kevin Kapstad, (5) during an NCAA college hockey game in Orono, Maine. Solomon is one of the plaintiffs in a class-action head injury lawsuit working its way through federal court in Chicago. The NCAA and the plaintiffs announced a settlement on Tuesday.×