CHICAGO — The NCAA agreed on Tuesday to help athletes with head injuries in a proposed settlement of a class-action lawsuit that college sports' governing body touted as a major step forward but that critics say doesn't go nearly far enough.
The deal, filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago, calls for the NCAA to toughen return-to-play rules for players who receive head blows and create a $70 million fund to pay for thousands of current and former athletes to undergo testing to determine whether they suffered brain trauma while playing football and other contact sports.
A lead attorney for the plaintiffs who spearheaded nearly a year of talks culminating in the agreement said the provisions would ultimately improve players' safety and leave open the possibility of damage payments later.
"I wouldn't say these changes solve the safety problems, but they do reduce the risks," Chicago attorney Joseph Siprut said. "It's changed college sports forever."
Others strongly disagreed.
Unlike a proposed settlement in a similar lawsuit against the NFL, this deal does not set aside any money to pay players who suffered brain trauma. Instead, athletes can sue individually for damages; the NCAA-funded tests that would gauge the extent of neurological injuries could establish grounds for doing just that.
One plaintiffs' attorney not involved in the negotiations called it a "terrible deal" that lets the NCAA off the hook far too easily. Jay Edelson called the deal "window dressing," saying the NCAA will be able to settle one-off suits for several thousand or several million dollars each He estimated that a class-action settlement could have been worth $2 billion.
"Instead," he said, "it's worthless."
The settlement is primarily directed at men and women who participated in basketball, football, ice hockey, soccer, wrestling, field hockey and lacrosse.
There is no cutoff date for when athletes must have played a designated sport at one of the more than 1,000 NCAA member schools to qualify for the medical exams. That means all athletes currently playing and those who participated decades ago could undergo the tests and potentially follow up with damage claims.
Tuesday's filing serves as notice to the judge overseeing the case that the parties struck a deal. At a status hearing later in the day, U.S. District Judge John Lee said he wanted more time to consider whether to give the deal preliminary approval. If he does, affected athletes will have a chance to weigh in before Lee decides about granting a final OK.
The NCAA, which admits no wrongdoing in the settlement and has denied understating the dangers of concussions, hailed the deal.
"This agreement's proactive measures will ensure student-athletes have access to high quality medical care by physicians with experience in the diagnosis, treatment and management of concussions," NCAA's chief medical officer Brian Hainline said.
Siprut added that stricter rules and oversight should help ensure the viability of football by allaying fears of parents now inclined to not let their kids play.
"Absent these kinds of changes, the sport will die," he said.
To keep the NCAA from having to hold unwieldy talks with multiple plaintiffs, 10 lawsuits filed nationwide were consolidated into the one case in Chicago, where the first lawsuit was filed in 2011.
The lead plaintiff is Adrian Arrington, a former safety at Eastern Illinois. He said he endured five concussions while playing, some so severe he has said he couldn't recognize his parents afterward.
Another named plaintiff is former Central Arkansas wide receiver Derek K. Owens. His symptoms became so severe he dropped out of school in 2011, telling his mother: "I feel like a 22-year-old with Alzheimer's."
Among other settlement terms, all athletes will take baseline neurological tests to start each year to help doctors determine the severity of any concussion during the season; concussion education will be mandated for coaches and athletes; and a new, independent Medical Science Committee will oversee the medical testing.
Robert Cantu, a Boston-based clinical professor of neurosurgery and a longtime critic of the NCAA, said the deal is a huge shift by the organization.
"It'll make collision sports much safer," said Cantu, who was one of the plaintiffs' experts.
But former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma said it's all for show.
"It takes some of the things many of us have been advocating for and pretends to address it," Huma, president of the College Athletes Players Association, said.
Plaintiffs' filings say the number of athletes who may require testing to learn if they suffered long-term damage runs into the tens of thousands. They cite NCAA figures that from 2004 to 2009 alone, 29,225 athletes suffered concussions.
Internal emails unsealed in the lawsuit illustrate how pressure mounted on the NCAA over the issue.
In a Feb. 23, 2010, email, the NCAA's director of government relations, Abe Frank, wondered whether debates about new safeguards for young children playing contact sports would crank up the pressure on the NCAA to do more.
David Klossner, NCAA's then-director of health and safety, responded bluntly a few hours later: "Well since we don't currently require anything all steps are higher than ours."
Later that year, the NCAA established a head-injury policy that states that athletes should be kept from play for at least a day after a concussion. It also requires each school to have a concussion management plan on hand.
But plaintiffs blamed a tendency of some teams to hurry concussed players back into games, in part, on the NCAA's lax enforcement of the policy.
In a 2012 deposition, asked if any schools had been disciplined for having subpar concussion plans, Klossner said, "Not to my knowledge."
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