A new brain injury lawsuit could be the undoing of college football as we know it

The NCAA will have to testify under oath whether or not it knew about CTE risks.
The NCAA will have to testify under oath whether or not it knew about CTE risks.
Image: AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis
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The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) dropped the ball when it came to protecting football players’ brains, argues the widow of a deceased player in a lawsuit about the neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

 Just a year after the National Football League (NFL) settled for $1 billion with the families of players who suffered brain damage, and after the college athletes’ league reached a settlement to provide free biannual medical screening for athletes, the NCAA will tackle the matter again publicly in a Texas civil court. But this time, the NCAA officials will have to testify in front of a jury. The trial, which begins today (June 11), will be the first time NCAA representatives will have to answer questions in court about brain injury, revealing just what they knew about CTE and the risks of playing football, how long they knew it, and whether they hid information about those dangers from college athletes.

The plaintiff in this case, Debra Hardin-Ploetz, is the widow of Greg Ploetz, a linebacker and defensive tackle for the University of Texas from 1968 to 1972. He never played professionally, but in 2015, after he died, neurologists from Boston University who examined his brain concluded that he had the most severe form of CTE, and that the disease is what killed him.

Although Ploetz stopped playing football after college, he experienced symptoms of CTE, including depression, aggression, and confusion shortly after graduation. Eventually, he lost the ability to communicate in full sentences, responding only “yes” and “no” to questions and requiring full-time care.

In 2017, Hardin-Ploetz sued the NCAA for over $1 million on two grounds, reports Sports Illustrated: First, for negligence generally, meaning that the NCAA did little to warn or protect players like Ploetz about CTE, while knowing the dangers of playing the sport and taking years of hits to the head. Second, for wrongful death, which is a negligence claim made by the victim of someone who is deceased and applies to Ploetz specifically.

The NCAA, for its part, argues that because Ploetz knew the dangers of playing a contact sport, it isn’t liable for his death.

At the time Ploetz played in the NCAA, the league had no public policies on managing head injuries and concussions, and no rules about what colleges had to tell players, according to a deposition (pdf) of Mary Elizabeth Wilfert, associate director of the NCAA Sport Science Institute.

Today, universities must have comprehensive plans to care for athletes who become concussed, including criteria for when players are allowed to return to practice, games, and the classroom. Each player must sign a waiver acknowledging that they understand that their particular sport puts them at risk of head injury. Football players must wear (pdf, p. 106) knee pads, shoulder pads, mouthguards, and helmets with a faceguard and chin strap that meet impact testing standards set by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment. These helmets, too, must contain a warning label about the risks of obtaining head injuries.

Hardin-Ploetz’s attorneys have noted that it took the NCAA 12 years from the time they learned that mouthguards could help prevent concussions and other injuries to implement rules requiring the equipment. And that’s even when the recommendation to enforce mouthguard use had come from one of the NCAA’s own safety subcommittees. The attorneys say is this evidence the association wasn’t overly concerned with player safety.

The widow’s claims in this case are somewhat analogous to Big Tobacco cases. For decades, Big Tobacco hushed the scientific research showing that smoking does in fact cause lung cancer. Smokers may have suspected that their habit was dangerous, but companies were still found liable in the courts for failing to publicize science on the actual dangers. Similarly, the NFL for a long timed denied the link between playing football and developing CTE later in life, despite the fact that neuroscientists have known for many years that repeated hits to the head, and not just concussions alone, directly cause the neurodegenerative disease. Players may understand a contact sport is risky, but if an athletic association or league failed to disclose known risks and failed to take precautions that could have prevented harm, it can, arguably, still be held liable for negligence and CTE deaths, no matter what players knew.

The NCAA has tried to block Hardin-Ploetz at every turn in this case, fighting her lawyers’ requests to depose association doctors and generally trying to minimize discovery. The deposition testimony shows acrimonious and contentious exchanges, with NCAA attorneys objecting to many questions, and the widow’s legal team complaining they can’t get the answers or witnesses they need.

While the trial isn’t likely to be a friendly affair, all parties will have to play a more civil game. If the NCAA seems to be blocking questions or otherwise indifferent to the plight of players, jurors will probably not be happy with the association.

On the other hand, a jury of Texans—who famously love college football— might be wary of what Hardin-Ploetz’s claims could do to the beloved pastime. If she wins, more former players may bring their CTE cases to court—which may result in further testimony from the NCAA on the dangers of football-playing, and could eventually influence the way football is played at the collegiate level. This, in turn, could put pressure on the NFL to do the same.

Although it’s hard to speculate, one such change would be transforming the way players are allowed to tackle one another. According to an analysis of the 2015 to 2016 season, tackling was the number one cause of concussions during games, and most of them come from helmeted head slamming into bodies. Theoretically, barring cross-body tackling—where a defensive player runs at an offensive player sideways with his head and chest across the offensive players body—and a win for the widow of a CTE victim in court would certainly help that cause..

However, college and professional football are high-stakes sports. If spending time learning alternative tackles takes away a team’s competitive edge, it may ignore new rules or find work-arounds to allow its players to continue making the sports’ characteristic big hits.

Football has already dropped in popularity in recent years, and a win for the widow in this case isn’t likely to help. Some fans may resist any resulting changes to beloved football traditions, while others may see the case as one more reason to abandon the sport.