NCAA Liability for Injuries to Student Athletes

In my last post, I discussed injuries to high school athletes. There are unique legal issues attendant to that since high school is mandatory and a part of the state’s educational infrastructure. College athletics are distinct because colleges are not mandatory. There is no right to university education. They are similar, however, insofar as public high schools and public or state colleges and universities are covered under the respective state tort claims acts. In addition, the standard for negligence is the same in both cases; the negligence for a high school official is the same if he or she was a college or university official.

The Texas A&M Class Action

A stone sign with "Texas A&M University" letters hanging on it.With all of these factors in play, a former Texas A&M University football player is suing the NCAA for concussions that he received as a result of playing football. Julius Whittier filed suit and sought certification as a class action case. He sued for injuries he received but were not remedied or addressed by the NCAA. Mr. Whittier was the first African-American to play football for Texas A&M, but he never played in the NFL. As such, he is seeking to sue on behalf of all college football players who played under the auspices of the NCAA but did not play for the NFL. His case was recently consolidated with other similar cases across the country into a class action.

Mr. Whittier suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, allegedly caused by multiple traumas to his head that he sustained while playing college football. Mr. Whittier alleges that the NCAA failed to act in the face of longstanding evidence that repeated head trauma, as experienced by college football players, resulted in a multitude of neurological issues. The NCAA failed to warn the players of these risks and did not seek to mitigate these damages by establishing certain medical protocols for member schools to adhere to when a player did suffer certain types of injuries.

The NCAA’s Preliminary Settlement Agreement

In early 2014 the NCAA entered into a preliminary settlement agreement to provide $75 million dollars for the diagnosis and testing for concussion testing. The same settlement did not provide for any ongoing medical treatment or individual compensation to players for their injuries.  Instead, that settlement left open the ability of individual players to sue the NCAA as well as their former respective schools for specific injuries they sustained while playing. They will, however, no longer be able to bring the claim as part of a class action.

While this settlement accomplished much for the protection of existing and future athletes, for those like Mr. Whittier who have already suffered life-long injuries, the battle is just beginning. Player’s individual injuries have the potential to generate awards in the millions as well. The costs associated with caring for someone with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological diseases can be enormous. Moreover, the loss of quality of life cannot be replaced.  Ultimately it will be up to lawsuits against the NCAA and individual colleges to provide for the harms done to former college athletes like Julius Whittier.