Concussions are changing the game

Traumatic brain injuries may be one of the largest single issues facing the NCAA and member institutions

You may have seen a recent article on concussions on DU’s men’s soccer coach Jamie Franks was participating in a concussion seminar and the impact of brain injuries on student athletes. Recent studies have focused on the dramatic impact brain trauma can potentially have on athletes – even well after their sports career is over. Longer term, these injuries will have a major impact on how sports are played and, perhaps, even which sports are played at the NCAA level.

The transformation is happening quickly and one example can be found in a recent lawsuit filed by a Kansas family this past week. As reported by the Kansas City Star, the family of a former Pittsburg State (Kansas) football player who committed suicide is suing the NCAA and Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association.

The class action lawsuit, filed this past Friday in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan., alleges the NCAA knew about the debilitating long-term dangers of concussions, concussion-related injuries, and sub-concussive injuries that resulted from playing college football, but “recklessly disregarded this information to protect the very profitable business of ‘amateur’ college football.”

The football player, Zack Langston, had suffered from behavioral and mood swings soon after football and took his life February 24th, 2014. Langston played outside linebacker at Pittsburg State from 2007-10 and “suffered from over one hundred concussions,” according to the suit, which also alleges the school didn’t give appropriate medical treatment and told Langston to “shake it off” and return to games or practices “if he was even attended to at all.”

Zack Langston’s brain was shipped to the CTE Center and was found to have high levels of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a type of chronic brain damage.

The Associated Press reported last October that the NCAA is facing 43 class-action lawsuits related to the handling of concussions at the Division I level. The lawsuits were filed by Chicago-based law firm Edelson PC, which is also one of the law firms representing Langston.

Last year, a federal judge granted preliminary approval to a $75 million settlement of a class-action concussion case against the NCAA with the money used to set up a 50-year, $70 million medical monitoring program for college athletes and a new $5 million program to research prevention, treatment, and effects of concussions. But that may only scratch the surface.

Recently, the NFL agreed to a concussion settlement with the NFL Player Association but the billion dollar fund is seen as too little too late by many former NFL players. Nick Buoniconti, suffering from CTE, said in an article, “The (concussion) settlement is a joke; the way it was structured is a joke. They are waiting for us to die. They’re going to play the clock out until everybody dies.”His son, Marc Buoniconti said, “I don’t think it’s safe. I cannot recommend football for, really, anybody. I was 50-50 on this already but, then, watching my dad — that sealed it for me.”

But, can the NCAA and universities ‘run out the clock’ on football? Also, what about sports like hockey, soccer, lacrosse, and gymnastics – can they be far behind? And what about other medical issues later in life resulting from DI sports resulting in knee and hip replacements, back surgeries, and chronic injuries and pain which occurred during college surface in financial settlements in the future.

It is estimated that as many as 1.6-3.8 million concussions occur in the US per year in competitive sports and recreational activities; this is a rough estimate since as many as 50% of concussions go unreported.[12] 

Injury rate per exposure based on sport in collegiate athletes from 1998 to 2004[14]
Sport Injury rate per 1,000 athletic exposures
Women’s ice hockey 0.91
Men’s spring football (American) 0.54
Men’s ice hockey 0.41
Women’s soccer 0.41
Men’s football (American) 0.37
Men’s soccer 0.28
Men’s wrestling 0.25
Men’s lacrosse 0.25
Women’s lacrosse 0.25
Women’s basketball 0.22
Women’s field hockey 0.18
Men’s basketball 0.16
Women’s gymnastics 0.16
Women’s softball 0.14
Women’s volleyball 0.09
Men’s baseball 0.07
All sports 0.28

*DU sports in BOLD

DU participates in six of the top 10 concussion-related sports. And hockey is shown to have more concussions than fall football.

Look for this issue to play out in greater education and awareness by athletes, coaches, and training staff. But will that be enough? And, what about physical issues which may not be diagnosed until well after college? Finally, there is sure to be a growing and direct financial cost to the NCAA and member institutions in an already delicate financial environment.

All these issues are sure to impact the future of collegiate athletics.

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