THE NATIONAL Collegiate Athletic Association’s proposed $75 million settlement of a suit brought by former athletes claiming they were exposed to dangerous brain traumas represents a modest, tentative effort to come to grips with a problem that will challenge college sports for years. The still-emerging evidence of the dangers of repeated head trauma in football, soccer, hockey, and other contact sports will require more rule changes — and in the interim will also probably result in more liability suits against universities and the NCAA itself.
The settlement put forward last week, which still requires a judge’s approval, would merely establish a “medical monitoring fund” to help determine if athletes have suffered concussions, and provide that no athlete with a concussion will return to a game or practice that day. It’s a modest step, more of a wake-up call to the NCAA than a solution to the dangers of head trauma.
From 2004 to 2009 alone, according to the plaintiffs, there were about 16,000 concussions in NCAA football and 9,000 in men’s and women’s soccer. The proposed settlement includes no payments for medical care, unlike the terms of the proposed $765 million settlement in the National Football League. Current and former students who have played contact sports — a universe of 1.4 million people — retain the right to sue their universities or leagues.
The extent of the potential liability, like the extent of the injuries themselves, is unknown. But evidence continues to emerge that repeated hard hits to the head can cause permanent damage that leads to depression, dementia, increased suicide risk, and even death. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the hippocampus (the part of the brain involved in memory) was significantly smaller in University of Tulsa football players than in non-football players. The study found the hippocampus to be 24 percent smaller in players with past concussions. But most significantly, the study found that the hippocampus was 14 percent smaller in players with no histories of concussion. That lends evidence to the longstanding belief by some researchers that even sub-concussive hits can cause permanent damage.
In a phone interview, lead researcher Patrick Bellgowan said the hippocampus was smaller and reaction time in mental tests was slower the longer football players had been in the sport, going back to youth leagues. That suggests that the protocols laid out in the NCAA’s settlement, which focus strictly on concussions, won’t be enough to protect players from hits that could cause potentially degenerative brain disease. While the evidence isn’t clear enough to determine the extent of potential liability for the NCAA or universities, it ought to be enough to prompt rules changes in games and practice schedules to reduce potential head traumas. The NCAA shouldn’t wait for another lawsuit to take further steps to protect college athletes.