The NCAA would embrace a new protocol to handle athlete concussions and spend millions of dollars to monitor former players as long as those athletes are barred from filing class-action claims in the future, under a proposed settlement announced in federal court Tuesday.
Described as a “commitment to student-athlete safety,” the $75 million deal would also protect the NCAA from the type of costly settlement the NFL is currently negotiating with its retired players. And while former college athletes still could file individual personal injury suits against the organization, those claims don’t typically carry the same power as class-action lawsuits.
“It was a trade-off,” plaintiff’s attorney Steve Berman said. “We thought it was in the best interest of the (group).”
U.S. District Judge John Z. Lee raised questions about the prohibition against the personal injury class-action when reviewing the proposed settlement Tuesday, and asked both sides for information before he issues a ruling.
The settlement would end litigation that began when a dozen college athletes — including former Eastern Illinois University defensive back Adrian Arrington — accused the NCAA of putting their health at risk by leaving concussion policies up to individual schools. The NCAA admits no wrongdoing in court documents filed, as it agreed to make small payments to the athletes involved in the litigation.
Arrington and three other former athletes each would be paid $5,000 for being deposed as part of the lawsuit, while eight others would receive $2,500 for being named plaintiffs. The players’ lawyers would receive $15 million and up to $750,000 for expenses.
The NCAA also would contribute $5 million toward concussion-related research, according to the settlement.
Critics described the deal as “worthless” and contended it does little more than offer additional diagnostic testing to former college athletes. It does not provide any medical treatment or financial assistance if the tests deem them to have concussion-related problems.
“It’s going to benefit no one here in any real way except for the NCAA and the plaintiff’s lawyers,” said attorney Jay Edelson, who represents former Pittsburgh player Frank Moore and former San Diego State football player Andy Nichols.
Neither player is named in the lawsuit that prompted the proposed settlement.
Under that proposal, the new medical monitoring fund would allow any athlete who played NCAA sports to get a free evaluation of possible concussion-related symptoms, ranging from motor problems to cognitive issues. The program would be available for the next 50 years to an estimated 4.2 million athletes regardless of when they played, what sport they played or how long they played.
About 700,000 eligible participants played college football, according to court documents. About 2 million former athletes were not involved in contact sports, though they can still receive testing for any head injuries they may have suffered during their collegiate careers.
The protocol would require the ex-players first to fill out a survey to see if they qualify for the evaluation. The evaluation results would be forwarded to their doctors, but the NCAA would not provide any recommended treatments. Instead, athletes would have to sue the organization or individual universities if they believed them responsible for their concussion-related problems.
Arrington, who contends he suffered five concussions during his college career, says the repeated trauma has caused him memory loss, migraine headaches, depression and seizures. He plans to file a personal injury claim against the NCAA, his attorney Joseph Siprut said.
Under the agreement, NCAA schools also would have to follow certain procedures when their players suffer head trauma. Athletes, for example, would not be allowed to return to action the same day they receive a concussion.
All players, coaches and trainers would receive concussion education, as well. And doctors trained in concussion diagnosis would have to be present for all games played in contact sports such as football, soccer and basketball.
The proposed settlement describes these guidelines as “significant changes to and enforcement of the NCAA’s concussion-management policies,” but many programs already have adopted these practices. The Big Ten conference, for example, instituted a nearly identical plan in 2010.
“It was the safest and broadest plan we could enact,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. “It makes for a healthier game — and that is what everyone wants.”
Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer said the proposed settlement would not require any changes to how his program responds to concussions.
“We evaluate every concussion we have and why,” he said. “That’s where I adapt. Practices are much different now than they were three years ago for us. … We’re already following what’s been proposed.”
Tribune reporters Stacy St. Clair, Teddy Greenstein and Chris Hine contributed.