CHICAGO (AP) — The NCAA, the powerful U.S. college sports governing body, agreed Tuesday to settle a class-action head injury lawsuit by creating a $70 million fund to diagnose thousands of current and former athletes to determine if they suffered brain trauma playing football, hockey, soccer and other contact sports.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association also agreed to implement a policy describing how all teams must treat players who received head blows, according to a filing in U.S. District Court. 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.
The issue of concussions and their lasting impact has exploded onto the sports scene in recent years, especially in American football.
A lead attorney for the plaintiffs said the provisions would ultimately improve players’ safety.
“I wouldn’t say these changes solve the safety problems, but they do reduce the risks,” attorney Joseph Siprut said. “It’s changed college sports forever.”
Others strongly disagreed.
Unlike a proposed settlement in a similar lawsuit against the professional National Football League, this deal stops short of setting aside money to pay players who suffered brain trauma. Instead, athletes can sue individually for damages.
One plaintiffs’ attorney not involved in the negotiations called it a “terrible deal” that lets the NCAA off far too easily. Jay Edelson said the NCAA will be able to settle individual suits for several thousand each. He estimated that a single, class-action damages settlement could have been worth $2 billion to players.
“Instead,” he said, “it’s worthless.”
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.
The settlement applies to all men and women who participated in basketball, football, ice hockey, soccer, wrestling, field hockey and lacrosse. Those who’ve played at any time over the last half-century or more at one of the more than 1,000 NCAA member schools qualify for the medical exams. That means all athletes playing and those who participated decades ago could undergo the tests and potentially follow up with damage claims.
The NCAA, which admits no wrongdoing in the settlement and has denied understating the dangers of concussions, praised the deal.
“This agreement’s proactive measures will ensure student-athletes have access to high quality medical care by physicians with experience in the diagnosis, treatment and management of concussions,” the NCAA’s chief medical officer Brian Hainline said.
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 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.
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