Athletes and Concussions: Growing Awareness Leads to Questions of Liability
The Sports Blawg with the Fordham Sports Law Forum
Concussions have long been recognized as a potential danger when competing in sports, but one that has been thought to be relatively innocuous. Concussions often result from a hard hit to the head and usually cause temporary effects such as headaches, problems with concentration or memory, and difficulty with balance and coordination. However, a recent study at the Boston University School of Medicine evaluating tissue from retired, and now deceased, National Football League (NFL) players reveals that concussions are not as innocuous as previously thought. In fact, the findings show that suffering multiple concussions causes severe brain damage, known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). CTE primarily affects the parts of the brain that control emotion, which may explain why many former athletes suffer from depression, memory-loss, bouts of anger, headaches and even dementia.
As a result of the growing awareness of the seriousness of concussions and their lasting effects, many professional sports franchises and schools have implemented concussion-testing procedures, like baseline imPACT concussion testing, to ensure that concussions are accurately identified and promptly treated.
However, despite this trend, many athletes still believe that their organizations have not done enough to protect them from sports-related concussions. The last couple of years have seen a wave of cases filed on behalf of NFL players who claim the league was negligent in its handling of brain trauma. And, more recently, in 2009 a class action suit was filed on behalf of college athletes against the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) claiming the NCAA has been negligent regarding awareness and treatment of brain injuries such as concussions. The plaintiffs in this action were originally all male football players but were recently joined by female soccer player, Angela Palacios, signifying that athletes outside the realm of football have also decided to take action.
While certain claims that the NCAA or NFL may have been negligent or that the organizations attempted to cover up injuries, may have merit, these cases beg the question whether they are in reality, attempts at gaining compensation for injuries incurred from the sport itself, rather than participation in any specific league. Oftentimes, the brain damage suffered later in life is not a result of one specific injury, but is the result of a series of head injuries over time. Therefore, the injury that led to dementia in a retired NFL player may well have begun when he first started playing football at a young age. Is it really right to hold the NFL or NCAA responsible for injuries that may have incurred off their watch? Some say yes, pointing to the immense profits these organizations make from their athletes’ participation and comparing their relationship with the leagues to one of employer/employee. Others say no, these injuries are the result of a lifetime of participation in sports and it isn’t right to hold one entity responsible.
One thing is certain, however: the new evidence of long-term effects of multiple concussions in athletes should make both teams and organizations, as well as athletes themselves, more cautious when it comes to head injuries.