Newswise — Last month, a significant development occurred that has been widely overlooked and yet may herald a major evolution in how America approaches sports injuries in intercollegiate and interscholastic sports.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association has specifically set aside $70 million in a settlement fund to settle a class action suit brought by former student athletes complaining of later-in-life health conditions, such as early onset dementia, Parkinson’s Disease and other neurological conditions allegedly brought on by concussions suffered in collegiate full-contact sports, including not only football, but also soccer, lacrosse, hockey and others. The $70 million fund is intended primarily to diagnose and study possible medical consequences of participation in collegiate contact sports and, therefore, may be preliminary to future compensatory damages. It is, perhaps, significant, that such funds are most common in law in class action lawsuits concerning hazardous products, such as cigarettes and asbestos. One obvious inference is the possibility that playing college football, and other rough sports, may be hazardous for your health.
The NCAA decision comes in an era of heightened concerns over concussion-related injuries in scholastic athletics, especially high school and middle school football. Medical concerns continue to mount that head trauma injuries, already a significant concern in professional leagues such as the National Football League, may be even more damaging among developing youth, especially teenagers and younger children. In response, interscholastic sports leagues and states have recently enacted a growing body of rules, and even laws, designed to mitigate or prevent concussive injuries in school sports. Perhaps the best known of these is the passage of A.B. 2127 in California, which limits full-contact practices to two 90-minute sessions a week in the high school football season and bans them completely during the off-season. At least 20 states now ban off-season full-contact practice. States and leagues are also increasing education for coaches and trainers in recognizing and responding to possible concussion injuries.
Another approach is the responses to on-the-field concussions. Many states are passing laws requiring players suffering from probable concussions to be removed from play immediately and not returned until cleared by a physician and/or waiting out a certain number of days. While the laws limiting full-contact practice, and competition rules banning deliberate helmet-to-helmet contact, are designed to prevent brain traumas, these reactive steps are merely designed to prevent aggravating injuries already incurred, and may not actually prevent long-term consequences. Unfortunately, given the delayed nature of the onset of serious complications from concussive injuries, it may be decades before it can be determined if these efforts are successful.
All of which returns us to the recent suit against the NCAA, as well as professional football. As medical evidence grows linking contact sports to long-term health consequences, it’s inevitable that legal attention will turn to former athletes who only played football and other sports as developing adolescents. Unfortunately for schools, state athletic associations and youth leagues, the establishment of the NCAA fund will only invite further litigation and add credence to allegations of the long-term negative health effects of concussions suffered in youth sports decades earlier. It’s far too early to predict the demise of high school and college football. It should be remembered that a century ago football faced an even worse crisis over outcries related to crippling and even fatal injuries. It was saved by the intervention of President Teddy Roosevelt who demanded changes to the rules preventing mass formations and spreading-out formations. It’s entirely possible that the current focus on the long-term debilitating effects of concussive sports injuries will likewise spur rule changes in many sports and aggressive development of improved safety technology, especially in head and neck protection like helmets. However, for this season’s student athletes, such innovations can’t come soon enough.
Dr. Luke M. Cornelius, is an associate professor in the Department of Leadership, School Counseling and Sport Management at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville and a practicing attorney.