A federal class action lawsuit has been filed in the Northern District of Illinois against the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and NCAA Football on behalf of current and former NCAA football players who sustained a concussion(s) or suffered concussion-like symptoms while playing football at an NCAA school.  The lawsuit alleges the NCAA has failed to take meaningful steps to prevent student athletes from sustaining concussions.  In addition, the lawsuit claims the NCAA has ignored studies showing the risks and effects of concussions, such as early-onset dementia, depression, and lowered cognitive abilities, and failed to implement policies to address the problem.  This litigation marks the first targeting the NCAA rather than the players’ individual alma mater.

While the September 12, 2011, complaint acknowledges the NCAA’s April 2010 mandate requiring each NCAA school to implement a concussion management plan by August 2010, it describes the mandate as follows:  “Boiled down to its essence, the plan rejects any measure of responsibility for the NCAA, its member schools, and the coaching staff of individual teams; and instead, puts the burden squarely on the shoulders of student-athletes – the same student athletes who have just sustained fresh head trauma – to seek out medical attention, or decide whether to seek it in the first place.”  Essentially, the NCAA’s mandate is alleged to be too little, too late.

In fact, the NCAA’s mandate was issued shortly after La Salle University settled a negligence lawsuit dealing with the return to play of a former football player for approximately $7.5 million.   The former athlete was severely debilitated after suffering repeated concussions and alleged La Salle University allowed him to return to the field too soon. 

The class action lawsuit serves as a sharp reminder that colleges or universities with athletic programs, whether NCAA or not, should maintain and implement a clear Concussion Management Plan to help ensure the safety of athletes and minimize exposure to the organization.  Moreover, even if a Concussion Management Plan is in place, it is important to monitor whether or not the Plan is effective and if your organization is following the Plan as drafted.  When dealing with concussions you cannot be too careful or too prepared.