As the NFL deals with concussions from many aspects — including preventative, research and legal areas — the NCAA has escaped the same scrutiny
The Washington Times this week examined how college sports’ largest governing body has dealt with the concussion issue and found it has many of the same issues. In some cases, the NCAA will have to deal with those problems quicker than the NFL.
At the NCAA level, however, the issue has escaped similar furor. But a little-known concussion lawsuit against the NCAA in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Illinois is ahead of the NFL litigation, crawling through discovery that has turned over at least 130,000 pages of NCAA records to the plaintiffs. Depositions are scheduled for next month. The lawsuit could dwarf the NFL action — seeking to include every athlete who played a sport for the 1,281 NCAA-affiliated institutions. The case is part of a deluge of litigation against the NCAA, challenging a variety of actions including use of athletes’ likenesses and the penalties imposed on Penn State University as a result of the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal.
The NCAA strenuously denied the lawsuit’s allegations, including that the organization doesn’t properly protect athletes from concussions.
“I think the gap is widening between what the NFL is doing and what the NCAA is doing,” said Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player who is executive director of the Sports Legacy Institute that studies brain trauma in athletes. “There is money being made and the players have no voice in protecting themselves.”
The plight of the college player made national news last when President Barack Obama discussed his reluctance to let a son — if he had one — play football. His worry, he said was less about pro football than college football, which has no union to protect its players.
This report repeated what many have said: The NCAA has no consistent concussion protocol.
Concussions are mentioned three times in the NCAA’s labyrinthine 430-page Division I manual for 2012-13. Recruit? Four-hundred ninety-five mentions. Meals? Seventy-nine mentions. Movies? Eight mentions. Bagels? Two mentions.
The bagels are part of the infamous rule that permits universities to provide bagels, fruits and nuts to athletes. A spread, such as cream cheese or peanut butter, would be a violation. (The NCAA eliminated the rule, effective in August, as part of last month’s significant downsizing of the manual.)
But the same level of minutiae that ensnared athletes for offenses such as selling championship rings and receiving free tattoos doesn’t apply to concussions. The manual’s lone reference to head injuries is the 15 lines of Rule 18.104.22.168, adopted in 2010, that instructs each university to keep a concussion management plan on file. The NCAA’s most recent sports medicine handbook devotes six pages to brain injuries, including a 70-word warning about CTE.
While the NCAA seemed to have been making strides last decade, the report said it has trailed off in this area. Yet the NCAA is reluctant to follow the Ivy League, which has cut back football practices dramatically. Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA linebacker who is president of the National College Players Association, wants change soon.
In December, Mr. Huma’s proposal added a call to place independent concussion specialists on the sidelines to determine whether a player can return to a game and remove the decision from team doctors. There isn’t an NCAA-wide requirement for how to evaluate and diagnose concussions, other than mandating that such a process be in place. Next season, the NFL expects to have independent neurologists on the sidelines.
No one responded to the change.
– Bill Bradley, contributing editor