By Eugene Egdorf of Shrader & Associates
On March 7, 2017, Harvard Law School held its annual Sports Symposium. This year’s topic was entitled “Legal & Ethical Issues Affecting NFL Player Safety.” The event included the most well- speakers known on this topic – folks such as Chris Nowinski and Dr. Robert Cantu, co-founders of Concussion Legacy Foundation; Keynote Speaker DeMaurice Smith, Executive Director of the NFLPA, and Michael McCann, University of New Hampshire Law Professor and writer for Sports Illustrated.
While the title of the event emphasized the NFL, the real highlight was the panel discussion pertaining to the NCAA, which included the NCAA’s Executive Vice President of Regulatory Affairs, Oliver Luck.
The discussion of the science on concussions and head trauma was led by Dr. Cantu with additional data provided by Chris Nowinski. Several significant points were brought out:
Contrary to the operating myth from the NCAA and NFL, concerns over head trauma, concussions, and what we now know as CTE did not become known in the late 2000’s, but rather in the 1930’s, with articles and concerns for “punch-drunk football players” – just like boxers.
The CTE problem is far more pervasive and the future far darker than folks want to admit. Boston University researchers have thus far examined 151 brains of former college football players, and have found CTE in 138, or 91 percent. While thus far no longitudinal studies have been done, it appears that if anything CTE and its symptoms are UNDERREPORTED. And every head trauma adds to the risk – as Dr. Cantu said ” the best analogy to CTE is cigarette smoking.”
Science does not yet know what exposure levels are necessary to cause CTE. Onset appears to vary. But it has been found in teens. There seems to be little doubt that CTE can arise in anyone that has head trauma, and more hits makes it more likely CTE will develop.
Less contact in practices leads to fewer concussions, and of course fewer blows to the head. While the NFL has limited practice contact, this incredibly has not been adopted at all levels. This is a major concern. Unpublished data indicates that two-thirds of concussions in NCAA players occur in practice, while the practice rate is only 10 percent in the NFL.
Dartmouth became a health advocacy leader when its Head Coach Buddy Teevens eliminated practice contact, and began utilizing mobile virtual players. In the last three years Dartmouth football has had only one concussion.
Concussions and concussion symptoms remain alarmingly underreported. Harvard PhD. Candidate Christine Baugh conducted research including more than 700 NCAA players and published a paper in 2014 with findings that for every concussion reported, six were unreported, and another 21 events of “bell being rung.” Thus, for every concussion reported, there were on average 27 additional concussion-like events.
The culture has to change. Players MUST be encouraged to self-report. Coaching and training staffs must be proactive in removing players from participation and ensuring full evaluations and helming occurs prior to any return to play.
Of particular interest to NCAA litigators such as myself were some of the comments made in the following session by NCAA Executive Vice-President Oliver Luck. Luck admitted that the lawsuits have prompted the NCAA to act and recognize the importance of these issues, including the hiring of a Chief Medical Officer. Luck went on to say, “we clearly have a long way to go, but I would give us a passing mark.”
As one who has litigated against the NCAA for nearly a decade, I would certainly agree that the NCAA has a long way to go in protecting player health and safety. Even under the impending approval of the Arrington class action settlement, with baseline testing, no same-day return to play, etc., there are no rules limiting contact in practice as in the NFL, nor is there any real discipline or enforcement process.
Just last month Oregon had several players hospitalized as a result of abusive off-season drills, with no NCAA action resulting. While shortly thereafter five University of Richmond baseball players were suspended by the NCAA for participating in fantasy football.
The talk has gotten better from the NCAA, but the actions still speak louder. There certainly needs to be a culture change in football, but not just on the field and in locker rooms, but also at 700 W. Washington Street in Indianapolis.