published Thursday, September 5th, 2013

Ex-vols sue NCAA, seek lifetime head trauma monitoring after $765 million NFL-players settlement

Tennessee players (left to right) Gerald Jones, Marsalis Teague, Ben Martin, Steven Fowlkes, and Chris Walker, sing "If I ever fall in love again," by Shai during the 2009 Vols annual media day.
Tennessee players (left to right) Gerald Jones, Marsalis Teague, Ben Martin, Steven Fowlkes, and Chris Walker, sing "If I ever fall in love again," by Shai during the 2009 Vols annual media day.
Photo by Patrick Smith /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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BY THE NUMBERS

2.5 percent: College football concussion rates per 1,000 athletic exposures*

0.5 percent: Concussion rate for college athletes during practices

19 percent: Possible concussion risk over a season for athletes in contact sports

$614 million: NCAA revenue in 2007-08

* Any time a student takes the field in practice or competition. Figures for 2012

Source: NCAA, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, lawsuit complaint

High school football trauma concerns

Concern over concussions isn't limited to college and pro teams.

Boyd-Buchanan football coach Grant Reynolds said his team has started wearing guardian caps this year. He said they're "not real attractive" and they aren't worn during games, but he noted that aggressive hitting occurs during practice, too, and they've helped buffer the shock on hits to the head.

"We got them back in the spring, thinking it would help cut down on concussions, and man, it has," Reynolds said. "We haven't had a single one. Usually this time of year you have a couple, three, and as the season rolls on you have two or three more.

"It's a great, great deal," Reynolds said. "I'd recommend those for all high school teams in the future."

Matthew Gillespie, assistant director at the TSSAA, said discussions about concussion lawsuits is "not something we've ever discussed or that's ever been brought to our attention."

He added, "But knowing that it seems to be trickling down to the college ranks, I'm sure it's something we'll discuss in the future."

For Chris Walker and Ben Martin, four years of butting heads and crunching bones left a legacy of severe headaches and a future that they fear could include anything from disc damage to dementia.

The two former defensive ends for the University of Tennessee Volunteers football team, plus a former North Carolina State player, on Tuesday filed a class-action lawsuit charging the National Collegiate Athletic Association with gross negligence and breach of contract for failing to educate and protect student athletes from the dangers of head trauma. The suit seeks lifetime medical monitoring of former college football players for permanent damage from repeated head injuries.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga, comes a week after the NFL agreed to settle similar claims filed by pro football players.

One of the attorneys for Walker, Martin and former N.C. State offensive guard Dan Ahern said the NCAA should step up and "talk about how to get them help sooner rather than later."

"These are not professional football players, not $1-million-a-year athletes. These are regular people who played the game and might have a problem because of it," said Rich Lewis with Hausfeld LLP in Washington, D.C. "The older these guys get, the more at risk they are."

Walker, now campus director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, did not respond to telephone messages and emails seeking comment Wednesday. Martin and Ahern could not be reached for comment.

Through Associate Athletics Director for Communications Jimmy Stanton, University of Tennessee officials declined comment.

NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy said in an emailed statement that the organization has not been served with the complaint, but said officials will "review and evaluate it."

"It appears that it has been filed by one of the same law firms that appears in many other cases. It is not unusual to see this action from plaintiff's attorneys trying to secure a lead position in litigation of similar cases," Remy's email stated.

Hausfeld LLP also represents former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon, who filed a class-action lawsuit against the NCAA for profiting from his likeness without his permission. What's known as the "O'Bannon lawsuit" could eventually allow NCAA athletes to share in the millions the NCAA reaps from licensing athletes' names and likenesses.

The ex-Vols' suit asserts that NCAA revenues in 2007-08, the first year they played, were $614 million and that almost 90 percent came from marketing and television rights.

Lewis said the only relation between the two lawsuits is that the NCAA is the defendant "and it has to do with what's happening to college athletes."

Lightheaded and dizzy

Walker and Martin, who both played from 2007-11, describe in the lawsuit how certain hits during practice or games left them lightheaded and dizzy. Since then, they claim, they've suffered severe headaches and they fear permanent damage.

Ahern claims he suffered repeated concussions as a player from 1972-76 and permanent health damage including pain, inability to concentrate, poor memory and other symptoms. He said his health forced him to retire on disability at age 50.

According to the complaint, "The NCAA has known or should have known for many years" that football players who sustain repetitive head impacts are subject to conditions including "early-onset Alzheimer's disease, dementia, depression, deficits in cognitive functioning, reduced processing speed, attention and reasoning, loss of memory, sleeplessness, mood swings, personality changes" and more.

It cites studies going back to 1928 linking head trauma to Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, depression, mood swings, loss of judgment, sensory impairment and other problems in boxers, football players and others.

A 2012 NCAA study counted an average of 2.5 concussions per 1,000 game-related exposures, a rate the organization said had been steady for several years.

A University of Pittsburgh Medical Center neurosurgery study last year said the overall chance of an athlete in a contact sport experiencing a concussion "may be as high as 19 percent per season."

The lawsuit quotes a 2000 study presented to the American Academy of Neurology by Dr. Barry Jordan, director of the Brain Injury Program at Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in White Plains, N.Y.

Jordan and a colleague surveyed 1,094 former NFL players ages 24 to 86. They found more than 60 percent had had at least one concussion as a player; 26 percent had had three or more. Of the group studied, "49 percent had numbness or tingling; 28 percent had neck or cervical spine arthritis; 31 percent had difficulty with memory; 16 percent were unable to dress themselves; 11 percent were unable to feed themselves and eight had Alzheimer's disease."

The complaint asks that all former NCAA players living in the United States who did not go on to play professional ball in the NFL be included in the class.

Walker, Martin and Ahern ask the court to certify the class and grant an injunction forcing the NCAA to set up and pay for comprehensive medical monitoring "for lifelong risks of brain injury."

The recent NFL settlement covers more than 4,500 players and includes $10 million for unspecified research, The New York Times reported on Aug. 30.

Lewis, the attorney, said the timing of the lawsuit was not directly related to the settlement, but added that "anything that focuses attention to the issue is helpful."

He said there's no doubt that repeated head impacts, even short of concussion, increases the risk of brain injury.

"It's important not just for the young players today; these guys are facing some difficult times," he said.

"There are tests that are available and reliable that give really important information to these players and their doctors about how they're doing and if they're showing signs of injury. If they are, there are things that can be done to help them."

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.

about Judy Walton...

Judy Walton has worked 25 years at the Chattanooga Times and the Times Free Press as an editor and reporter focusing on government coverage and investigations. At various times she has been an assistant metro editor, region reporter and editor, county government reporter, government-beat team leader, features editor and page designer. Originally from California, Walton was brought up in a military family and attended a dozen schools across the country. She earned a journalism degree ...

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