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How will new NCAA head injury guidelines affect college athletes?

July 29, 2014 at 6:21 PM EST
The National Collegiate Athletic Association agreed to settle a number of cases brought in a class-action head injury lawsuit. The proposed settlement, which must still be approved by a federal judge, would create a $70 million fund for concussion testing and diagnosis of current and former athletes. Gwen Ifill talks to Rachel Axon of USA TODAY Sports about some lingering questions about the deal.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: And now we will turn to some big changes in the way college sports plans to deal with head injuries, all part of a significant settlement announced earlier today.

The debate over football-related head concussions has focused primarily at the professional level in recent years, as former players sued and then settled with the NFL over their injuries. Now collegiate-level players are also having their day in and out of court, as the NCAA agreed today to settle a number of cases brought in a class-action head injury lawsuit.

Lead plaintiff Adrian Arrington suffered five concussions as a football player at Eastern Illinois University. He said the effects were so severe, he sometimes couldn’t recognize his parents. The proposed settlement, which must still be approved by a federal judge, would create a $70 million fund for concussion testing and diagnosis of current and former student athletes; $5 million more would go toward concussion research.

NCAA member schools would be required to change their concussion management policies. The settlement goes beyond football, to include athletes engaged in other contact sports, including soccer, lacrosse and ice hockey. Unlike the NFL settlement, this agreement one doesn’t pay for medical expenses.

Rachel Axon is an investigative reporter for USA Today Sports covering the NCAA story. She joins me now.

Rachel, how significant is the settlement for college sports?

RACHEL AXON, USA Today Sports: Well, this is certainly bringing some changes, although there are some concerns about whether that is enough.

The settlement proposes $70 million for a medical monitoring class, $5 million for research, as well as some changes to NCAA guidelines. But, right now, those wouldn’t be rules, and there are questions about what would happen at schools if they didn’t follow those, so a step forward in the eyes of some, but definitely questions in other corners.

GWEN IFILL: We know that you have talked to, interviewed Adrian Arrington, who is central to this case. His case and others really exposed the vulnerabilities in the NCAA’s plans which kind of led to the settlement.

RACHEL AXON: That’s correct.

The Arrington plaintiffs filed for class-action certification a year ago in July. And included in that was a proffer of facts that included e-mails that could be seen as damaging to the NCAA, acknowledging that they didn’t really have guidelines regarding concussions.

The rules on the books only require that schools have concussion management plans, but they don’t outline what should be in those. So once the class-action certification, that motion was filed, we saw a rash of copycat lawsuits because they saw kind of potential there.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned guidelines. Are these guidelines or are they enforceable rules?

RACHEL AXON: Right now, they’re guidelines.

In the settlement, it says the NCAA will present this to the executive committee and to be kind of followed through the normal process. But that means the schools must approve these as rules. And right now that’s not there. That’s one of the issues that people are having with the settlement.

GWEN IFILL: One of the guidelines in the settlement empowers medical professionals to make the decision, for instance, about whether a player can return to the field. And that is not what the case was before?

RACHEL AXON: Well, this is something that they’re putting in writing. This is kind of a best practice that they were a little bit behind the times on it.

There have been instances — and NCAA’s own survey found that at several schools, players were returned to play the same day as being diagnosed with a concussion, which we know from medical research is where a lot of the damage can be done.

GWEN IFILL: So, what happens in individual lawsuits now?

RACHEL AXON: This — what this does, it means that there will be no class-action suit for damages. So the players will not get money as a result of this for any long-term injuries they might have suffered.

It does preserve their right to pursue personal injury claims individually. As we know, that can be very difficult, an expensive process, and many players might not be able to do it for that reason.

GWEN IFILL: There are 1.5 million athletes in contact sports at the college level, $70 million in this settlement. Any sense about how far that money would actually go?

RACHEL AXON: Well, the plaintiffs and the NCAA said they done an — had an economic analysis done. They expect it will last the 50-year period. It should be noted that could be as low as $55 million once attorneys’ fees are removed.

But that’s a question that some of the critics of this settlement have, is, is that enough? And we saw that with the NFL concussion settlement, where the U.S. district court judge didn’t approve it because she didn’t think the funding was there.

GWEN IFILL: So if this judge — the judge, Lee, approves this settlement, what do schools have to do? What do the member schools have to do next?

RACHEL AXON: Well, there are certain guidelines in here that they would have to follow, but the NCAA would have to take that to its membership and have a vote on that before that would be considered a rule.

That could mean things like doing baseline testing, if they’re not already doing that, education for coaches, education for faculty about concessions they may need to make for athletes who have concussions. So, there are things that will be done, but right now nothing is a requirement. It’s still a guideline until the NCAA votes on it.

GWEN IFILL: Part of the disagreement all along in these cases had been that the NCAA didn’t concede that it had a legal duty to protect these athletes. Does this change that?

RACHEL AXON: I don’t think it changes that. And the plaintiffs in this case would argue that’s just completely false. The NCAA was created over 100 years ago in response to a number of deaths in football, under threat of the federal government intervening because of that.

So the plaintiffs would argue the NCAA has always had that obligation, has said that repeatedly, and this doesn’t change that.

GWEN IFILL: Is this something that future athletes would be affected by, as well as current ones?

RACHEL AXON: The medical monitoring, no. That applies to current and former athletes.

The hope would be that the guidelines in place, and should those become rules, would help prevent current athletes who are still playing and future athletes from having these types of injuries with these long-term consequences.

GWEN IFILL: Rachel Axon of USA Today, thank you so much.

RACHEL AXON: Thanks, Gwen.