COMMENTARY: Concussion injury litigation – Count me out

Because I played college football — albeit 40 years ago — I was somehow tracked down along with thousands of other former student-athletes and informed of a pending class action suit in U.S. District Court (Northern District of Illinois) pertaining to concussions. Among the options for affected athletes is to opt out from the settlement. For the reasons enunciated below, that will be my choice.

The concussion suit claims that the National Collegiate Athletic Association was negligent and breached its duty to protect current and former student-athletes by failing to adopt appropriate rules regarding concussions. The lawsuit seeks both medical monitoring relief and changes to the NCAA’s concussion management guidelines. Relatedly, another class action suit against the NCAA and helmet maker Riddell contends that they failed to protect football players from long-term head injuries and didn’t educate them about the risks.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

As one who teaches and studies the law, I am nonetheless wary of relying on the law as the first option in such instances. While there may be legitimate individual instances of concussion protocol violations, that is much different from alleging criminal negligence by an organization which oversees college athletics. The NCAA has many faults, but willful behavior which endangers the health of the athletes under its watch is not one of them.

Further, there must be a level of personal responsibility here. By the time I reached college, I had played football at the scholastic level for six years. At 18, I had taken health education courses in high school and had aspirations of becoming a neurosurgeon, so was aware of issues associated with the brain. As a walk-on to my college team, no one forced me or convinced me to play. I ran onto the field knowing the risks of injury.

During the nine years of my football career in school and college, I witnessed marked improvement in equipment provided to athletes, including helmets. I can only recall one direct problem with a helmet, which was that the plastic faceplate broke during a tackling drill at practice in college. Backing the class action suit against Riddell requires one to believe that the helmet maker wanted to pay out claims rather than reap profit from making a safe product.

Though I experienced a few mild concussions at the high school level, I was hospitalized twice for concussions at the collegiate level. I was and remain appreciative to my college coaches and to local hospital staff for their expertise, compassion, and concern in these instances. These people did not hide my condition from me or force me to suit up again before I was ready. They genuinely cared for me as a person, which is all I can ask for in a team sport.

Like others, I’m wondering why the recent rash of concussion lawsuits has picked only on football, whether at the pro or collegiate levels.

There are a number of other sports where concussions are commonplace. Accusing the NCAA of breach of duty toward athletes in one sport but not another is illogical. And if the NCAA is guilty elsewhere, then, there must be a grand conspiracy afoot. Horse dung.

As it turned out, I received a standing ovation on the last play of my collegiate career. That was because, having torn left knee ligaments, I was carried out on a stretcher from the Muhlenberg College field.

That injury came after right knee problems, two separated shoulders, and the concussions over three seasons. Still, I consider myself lucky, even though I walk with a limp, cannot lift my arms above my head for long, and suffer moderately severe arthritis.

No, I will not stain the memories of competing on the football field with my teammates. I’m not going to sign onto a suit that may make my college coaches feel ashamed. I refuse to hold the NCAA and a helmet maker culpable for my voluntary actions. While I fully support those efforts to research concussion injuries further and to improve return-to-play procedures, these should be done in a cooperative manner, not under the cloud of litigation.

Thanks, NCAA, for giving me the opportunity to compete and to play the sport I love.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies director at Delaware State University. He played high school and college football in Pennsylvania.

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