As 2018 season kicks off, college football reckons with head trauma harms

ncaalogo-300x200College football has kicked off its fall season with a flourish, but the signs are increasing that concerns about players’ health and safety may slash at the game’s size, spectacle, and importance.

Just as the pro leagues were forced to answer in court for the harms that athletes suffer due to repeated blows to their heads, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has been hit with claims in the civil justice system, asserting wrongful deaths of players from the recent past.

Lawsuits, believed to be part of what will be a wave, were filed against the college sports conference on behalf of the survivors and estates of a onetime University of Southern California fullback and a University of California at Los Angeles running back.

The plaintiffs assert that the universities should have known and done more to protect athletes from head trauma and its risks, with repeated blows suffered by the football backs damaging them, limiting their lives, and the quality of them. Both players died, and their survivors say the men showed all the signs of concussion-related harms, including cognitive declines, struggles with mental disease (depression), memory loss, hallucinations, and Alzheimer’s. One of the players, Rodney Stensrud, was diagnosed at autopsy with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that has been discovered in more than 100 deceased former football players.

While legal experts quoted by the Los Angeles Times forecast further litigation with former players and the NCAA, the National Football League is still working through its billion-dollar settlement with pros who sued the NFL over claims the league inadequately safeguarded players from head harms.

League officials and owners have insisted they accept medical evidence showing how concussions can be a cause of CTE, and, in their settlements, they have indicated they aren’t contesting how play-related head harms have contributed to former pros’ later experiences with Parkinson’s andAlzheimer’s. For the greater good of the sport, the NFL purportedly has assisted younger players and youth leagues in developing best practices to safeguard rising athletes and ensure their continued competition and the health of the game.

But parents and young people may be voting against football with their feet. News reports indicate participation in youth leagues keeps falling even in redoubts like Texas, while other media stories say that NCAA actual game attendance, as opposed to ticket sales, is dropping, resulting in lots of empty seats.

In my practice, I see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, and the damage that is inflicted on them, in the short- and long-term due to spinal and brain injuries, especially sports- and accident-related head traumas. College football not only persists as one of the most popular entertainments, it’s proven to be the cash-generator for most schools and their sports programs.

The NCAA and colleges and universities would be wise to look at the NFL and the National Hockey League in figuring how not to resist player safety initiatives but to get ahead of the curve on the significant matter of concussion and head trauma and their harms. (As an indicator of how the NFL struggles with player safety measures, listen to the pre-season yowling by fans over a new rule on helmets and tackling).

But with the list growing of colleges and universities hit by scandals involving abuses of students and athletes — institutions including now Penn State, Michigan State, USA Women’s Gymnastics, Ohio State University, USC, and Maryland — it’s hard to be sanguine about schools acting in progressive fashion to protect young people. That’s unacceptable, of course, and students, parents, community leaders, school leaders and trustees, policy makers, and politicians all need to stay on colleges and universities to do better, much, much better.

Patrick Malone & Associates, P.C. listed in Best Lawyers Rated by Super Lawyers Patrick A. Malone
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