By Michael S. Carroll, PhD & Andrew L. Goldsmith, PhD
Court-appointed representatives of former University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) football player Ryan Hoffman are suing the NCAA and the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) stating that the defendants ignored dangers associated with concussions and traumatic brain injury (TBI) for years, ultimately leading to the death of Hoffman in 2015. The class action lawsuit alleges negligence, breach of contract, and unjust enrichment, which follows a trend of concussion-related lawsuits filed by former players and their families aimed at sport organizations.
Ryan Hoffman was a 6-foot-5, 287-pound starting left tackle for then top-10 UNC, in the 1990’s, and started every game in his final season in 1997. Hoffman remembered only suffering a single concussion during his junior year at UNC and stated that he may have had others, but he never spoke up to coaches for fear that he may lose his starting position on the team. By his final season, Hoffman noticed that he had begun having antisocial thoughts, such as punching other people and drunk driving. Hoffman began to suffer from severe depression and suicidal tendencies as well and experienced severe headaches, memory loss, impulse control issues, and aggression. These symptoms made it nearly impossible for Hoffman to find and hold a stable job, or otherwise be a functioning person in society. As a result, he eventually became homeless and involved with prescription drug and alcohol abuse. Upon learning of his predicament in March 2017, old friends and former teammates reached out to help. In addition, UNC Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham pledged support from the University to help in any way possible. Hoffman was flown to Chapel Hill for a free medical evaluation at the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes. Following his trip to UNC, Hoffman entered a rehabilitation center, where he stayed for two months before being discharged. In October 2015, Hoffman was back on the streets of Haines City, FL, where he slept in an abandoned warehouse and ate out of garbage cans. Hoffman further deteriorated, and on Nov. 16, 2015, he rode a bicycle into oncoming traffic on Highway 17-92, was struck by a vehicle, and died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.
Hoffman and his family believed that his erratic behavior, antisocial thoughts, and depression were related to brain damage from participation in football. Following his death, Hoffman’s brain was examined and found to contain evidence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive and degenerative brain disease found in athletes that display a history of repetitive brain trauma. CTE slowly kills healthy brain cells and leads to a multitude of cognitive disabilities, including memory loss, inability to focus, confusion, depression, and suicidal thoughts. The lawsuit filed against the NCAA and the ACC alleges that both defendants knew about the debilitating long-term dangers of concussions and other forms of TBI that resulted from participation in football yet they recklessly disregarded that information in order to protect the profitable business of college football. The complaint further alleges that despite the vast body of scientific literature describing the effects of, and dangers associated with TBI, the defendants failed to implement adequate procedures for the protection of Hoffman and other similarly situated football players.
The class action lawsuit identifies two classes covered:
Deceased or Legally Incapacitated Class: All authorized representatives, ordered by a court or other official of competent jurisdiction under applicable state law, of deceased or legally incapacitated or incompetent individuals who participated in UNC’s varsity football program between 1953 and 2010.
Derivative Class: Spouses, parents, children who are dependents, or any other persons who properly under applicable state law assert the right to sue independently or derivatively by reason of their relationship with individuals who participated in UNC’s varsity football program between 1953 and 2010.
Cause of Action #1: Negligence
The complaint alleges that the NCAA has historically assumed a duty to protect the health and safety of all student-athletes at member institutions, including Ryan Hoffman. The NCAA also assumed a duty of care by voluntarily taking steps to promote the health and safety of its players, including producing and disseminating safety handbooks and regulations. This duty obligates the NCAA to maintain a supervisory and regulatory role with respect to its member institutions and sports. Part of this duty would be to provide appropriate and up-to-date guidelines and regulations in minimizing the risk of injury to its student-athletes. The complaint cites article 2.2 of the NCAA Constitution: The Principle of Student-Athlete Well-Being, which states “intercollegiate athletics programs shall be conducted in a manner designed to protect and enhance the physical and educational well-being of student-athletes” and Article 2.2.3: Health and Safety, which states that “it is the responsibility of each member institution to protect the health of, and provide a safe environment for, each of its participating student-athletes.” The complaint alleges that the NCAA had a duty to educate UNC and UNC football players on how to evaluate and treat TBI during football games and practices. Further, they were obligated to effectively warn student-athletes of the dangers associated with sub-concussive and concussive injuries and the risks associated with participation in football before, during, and after the conclusion of a playing career. The lawsuit states that since the inception of UNC’s football program, and through at least 2010, there were no adequate concussion management protocols or policies in place to address and treat concussions sustained by athletes at practices or games and that Hoffman himself experienced repetitive concussive and sub-concussive hits in practices and games for UNC. During Hoffman’s tenure at UNC, neither the ACC nor the NCAA adopted, or implemented, adequate concussion safety management protocols or return to play guidelines. The defendants breached these duties owed to UNC football players, including Hoffman, by failing to implement, disseminate, or require appropriate and up-to-date guidelines regarding the evaluation and treatment of TBI during practice or games, as well as failing to provide proper treatment for the effects of TBI. Furthermore, defendants failed to disclose and/or recognize information regarding the long-term risks and effects of repetitive head trauma on football players and the dangers of injuries resulting from participation in football. Hoffman and other football players relied upon the guidance, expertise, and instruction of defendants in understanding the risks associated with their participation in football and the injuries that could occur. Hoffman and others experienced repetitive head impacts and TBIs, which resulted in neurocognitive and neurobehavioral changes in them, including depression, memory loss, forgetfulness, and other cognitive impairments. As a direct and proximate result of defendants’ negligence, members of the Derivative Class have experienced a number of losses or damages, including maternal care, financial support, training, advice, comfort, and protection, as well as others. Additionally, Hoffman and the Deceased or Legally Incapacitated Class have incurred damages in the form of permanent brain damage, emotional distress, medical costs, healthcare, and other damages, including death.
Cause of Action #2: Breach of Express Contract
Hoffman and other UNC football players were required to enter into a contract with the NCAA, which is a prerequisite to participation in football at UNC, an institution governed by the NCAA. In exchange for these agreements, the NCAA promised to conduct intercollegiate athletics in a manner designed to protect and enhance the physical and educational well-being of student- athletes and require that each member institution provide a safe environment to protect health and safety of participating student-athletes. The complaint alleges that Hoffman and other UNC athletes fulfilled their contractual obligations to the NCAA by virtue of their participation in football. However, the NCAA breached their agreements by failing to ensure that Hoffman and other UNC football players were provided with a safe environment in which to participate in football activities. The NCAA further breached the contract by concealing and/or failing to properly educate and warn Hoffman and other football players about the symptoms and long-term risks associated with concussions and other TBI. The NCAA’s contractual breaches caused Hoffman and other class members to suffer physical harm and damages for which defendants are liable.
Cause of Action #3: Breach of Implied Contract
Outside of the written contract between Hoffman and other class members described in the second cause of action, Hoffman and other class members implicitly agreed to be bound by NCAA and ACC rules and regulations in exchange for their participation in athletic programs and events controlled by the NCAA and the ACC. As such, the NCAA agreed to abide by the promises set forth in its own Constitution and Bylaws, and the ACC agreed to implement such procedures. While Hoffman and other class members implicitly indicated their acceptance of the contract by virtue of their participation, the defendants breached their implied contractual duties by failing to ensure that Hoffman and other UNC football players were provided with a safe environment in which to participate in football activities and by concealing and/or failing to properly educate and warn players about the dangers associated with TBI and the long-term risks of concussions. Defendants’ breaches caused Hoffman and class members to suffer physical injury and damages, for which defendants are liable.
Cause of Action #4: Breach of Express Contract
In the event that no express or implied contract is found between Hoffman and defendants or defendants and other UNC football players, the complaint alleges that an express contract existed between the NCAA and UNC, by which UNC agreed to abide by applicable NCAA rules and regulations, including those set forth in the NCAA’s Division Manuals, Constitution, and Bylaws. Here, the applicable NCAA rules and regulations are with respect to conducting intercollegiate athletics programs in a manner designed to protect and enhance the physical and educational well-being of student-athletes and to provide a safe environment for participating student-athletes. Hoffman and other UNC football players were intended third-party beneficiaries of this contract between the NCAA and UNC, and the NCAA breached the contractual duties owed to Hoffman and other class members by failing to implement or require return to play criteria that would minimize or prevent the risk of concussions and other forms of TBI. Additionally, defendants failed to adequately inform and educate Hoffman and class members on the symptoms and long-term risks and dangers associated with concussions and other forms of TBI. As a result of the NCAA’s contractual breach, Hoffman and other class members suffered physical injury and damages, of which the NCAA is liable.
Cause of Action #5: Unjust Enrichment
The complaint states that defendants receive significant monetary gain from college football events in the form of contractual revenues from broadcasting, merchandising agreements, and ticket sales. Defendants should not in good conscience be permitted to retain such profits received at the expense of Hoffman and other class members while refusing to pay for medical expenses incurred as a result of their failures and prevention of injuries related to TBI concussions and other forms of TBI. As such, the complaint seeks restitution and/or disgorgement of all monies defendants have unjustly received as a result of their misconduct.
Michael S. Carroll is an Associate Professor of Sport Management at Troy University specializing in research related to sport law and risk management in sport and recreation. He has published more than 30 articles and delivered more than 50 presentations at professional conferences. He is currently serving as President of the Sport and Recreation Law Association. He lives in Orlando, FL.
Andrew L. Goldsmith is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Troy University specializing in research related to organizational behavior and ethical decision-making in sport and recreation.