Fort Worth

Football players file concussion lawsuit against NCAA, Big 12

TCU defense celebrates around a Texas Tech player who they hit so hard in a 2006 game that they knocked his helmet off.
TCU defense celebrates around a Texas Tech player who they hit so hard in a 2006 game that they knocked his helmet off. Star-Telegram archives

Five former football players including one from TCU are accusing the NCAA and the Big 12 conference of not protecting and informing thousands of football players about the debilitating health risks stemming from concussions and head injuries they suffered while playing the sport.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court in Indiana this month, the players, including Jarrod Blake Roberts, who played linebacker and defensive end at TCU from 2010 to 2014, say they suffer from symptoms indicative of long-term brain and neurocognitive injuries.

Painting college football as a billion-dollar enterprise that continues to grow in popularity and riches, the lawsuit accusesthe NCAA and Big 12 of sacrificing player safety — and the long-term health and well-being of the individual players — in favor of profits and self-promotion.

I think the incentives are misplaced for the NCAA and some of the conferences to put big hits, big-money games over player safety,

Vincent Circelli, the Fort Worth attorney

“I think the incentives are misplaced for the NCAA and some of the conferences to put big hits, big-money games over player safety,” said Vincent Circelli, a Fort Worth attorney who filed the lawsuit, the latest in a rash of litigation attacking concussion dangers faced by football players from Pop Warner to the NFL. “These kids relied on the NCAA to supervise, to make rules to protect these players.”

The NCAA, which has settled one lawsuit involving concussions and players for $75 million that allows for medical monitoring, said the suit filed by Circelli, Walter & Young offers “nothing new or unique” from similar cases pending in an Illinois federal court.

The theories in this case, like the others, simply are not supported by the law,

Donald Remy, NCAA chief legal officer

“The theories in this case, like the others, simply are not supported by the law,” Donald Remy, NCAA chief legal officer, said in a prepared statement.

A Big 12 spokesman said the conference had no comment about the lawsuit.

The other players named in the suit are two University of Oklahoma players, tackle Cory Brandon, who played from 2006 to 2011; and offensive lineman Kelvin Chaisson, who was on the roster from 2001 too 2005; Derrick Cherry, a tailback at Texas Tech University from 1994 to 1996; and Joseph Walker, who played cornerback and safety at the University of Texas from 1997 to 2000. The attorneys are seeking class action status.

“We love football. We want football to stick around. We’re not advocating the end of football,” Circelli said. “All we are advocating for is taking care of the players who are now suffering the results of some bad acts by the NCAA and others.

The lawsuit seeks compensation for injuries sustained and ongoing medical care. It states the NCAA and Big 12 repeatedly failed to warn and educate players of the long-term risks associated with repeated concussive and sub-concussive hits despite the availability of mounting evidence from multiple studies published, particularly over the last two decades.

“We want to help make it safer. We want to help former athletes be taken care of if they’ve got these traumatic brain injuries.”

Circelli’s law firm is expected to file another class action lawsuit in California against the Riddell helmet company. Circelli’s firm is teaming up with the Edelson law firm out of Chicago, which is representing other athletes suing over concussion-related injuries.

NCAA making changes

The suit against the NCAA seeks compensation for injuries suffered and for ongoing medical care. It accuses the NCAA and the Big 12 of repeatedly failing to warn and educate players about the long-term risks associated with repeated concussive and subconcussive hits despite the availability of mounting evidence from multiple studies that were published, particularly in the last two decades.

It also alleges that the NCAA, until recently, failed to implement rules of play that would limit head injuries and also failed to cover the cost of postcollegiate medical care.

Players who suffered concussions while playing an NCAA sport, the lawsuit alleges, “are then left to cope with the necessary costs and care resulting from their injuries.”

While the players were being injured, both the NCAA and the Big 12 were raking in big money. The Big 12 has collected and distributed over $2.6 billion in revenues since it was formed in 1994, and the NCAA brings in $1 billion a year, the lawsuit alleges.

Within the past few years, the NCAA and the Big 12 have been openly addressing the dangers related to concussions.

On Tuesday, the NCAA, out of concern over concussions, announced updated football practice guidelines that recommend only one live contact tackling practice a week, one live contact “thud” practice (in which a player is hit but not brought to the ground) and three or more noncontact or minimal practices per week.

Two years ago, the NCAA also joined forces with the Defense Department to fund a $30 million clinical study of concussion and head impact exposure. As of December 2016, about 28,000 athletes and 1,600 military academy cadets had been enrolled in the study, which will perform baseline assessments on individuals who have suffered a concussion.

Firm has about 150 clients

In 2015, the Big 12 announced a policy for concussion diagnosis and management for all student-athletes. The protocol states that schools should have a doctor-led team to handle concussion incidents, report them to the league, and develop an educational program. It also says a student-athlete exhibiting symptoms consistent with suffering a concussion should be removed from practice and competition until cleared medically.

After collecting data from the medical staffs of all 10 Big 12 schools in the 2013-15 football seasons, the conference enacted a policy limiting contact to two live opportunities per week, including games, according to an email from John Bianco, an athletics department spokesman for the University of Texas at Austin.

Circelli said his firm has acquired roughly 150 clients — about 100 former college players and the remainder former high school players — through ads that have aired on local TV and radio stations. Circelli said about 250 former players have filled out a survey that can be accessed on his law firm’s website. The survey is designed to determine the symptoms of former players and their eligibility to join the class action.

Circelli said only former players who are manifesting symptoms are included in the lawsuit.

“The NCAA promised this is what you get for your sweat and hard work: You get an education and you get to come to one of these great schools,” Circelli said. “The sad thing is that these football concussion injuries rob some of these athletes of that very thing.

“You are going to get this education, but for certain athletes, they’re not able to finish school, or they are not able to keep a job. That kind of trade-off is particularly sad.”

Max B. Baker: 817-390-7714, @MaxbakerBB

Jeff Caplan: 817-390-7705, @Jeff_Caplan

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