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Sports Injuries: Will Schools Be Held Liable for Player Injuries?

Sports safety equipment has evolved considerably over time as our understanding of sports-related injuries has changed. Today, we know that even a seemingly “slight” impact to the skull can bruise the brain and even result in long-term cognitive decline and late onset complications from the injury. Football players are the most obvious group in which these injuries manifest, but they’re present in just about every sport. It is becoming more and more important for schools to protect players from concussion and other head injuries. Failure to do so might actually result in a lawsuit. That’s exactly what’s happening with six colleges in the US right now.

The Penn State Case

The most visible such case was brought against Penn State. A number of people (all former players) brought a suit against both Penn State and the NCAA claiming that they were not provided with protection against concussion and the cognitive decline that could come from sustaining such an injury while playing football. However, within a couple of days, two of those players requested they have their names removed from the case, stating that they had no idea that they would be named in a suit against their alma mater, and that they did not sustain any such injuries during their time as a player for the school.

Both names will be removed from the lawsuit, but it will move forward. An attorney close to the case stated that there was no shortage of players willing to add their name to the lawsuit. The suit alleges that the schools:

  • Were aware of the risks of concussion and other head injuries to players
  • Did not notify players of those dangers
  • Did not implement any safety protocols to combat the potential for head injuries until 2010

As one would imagine, there’s a lot of back and forth between the schools, the NCAA and the law firm attempting to bring the suit. The schools (and the NCAA) state that the claims are “copycat” activity, meaning that the law firm is merely repeating the same claim over and over in an attempt to gain class action status for the suit. The law firm in question denies that, and asserts that the schools are simply looking for a way to shirk their legal responsibility to players.

The list of schools currently being named in the suit includes the following:

  • Penn State
  • Auburn University
  • The University of Georgia
  • Vanderbilt University
  • The University of Oregon
  • The University of Utah

However, at least three of the schools are not actually named as defendants because of their protected status (they cannot be named in specific claim situations).

Not the First Such Case

While the Penn State suit might be getting the most press, this is not the first time players have attempted to hold schools and the NCAA responsible for the lack of protection provided to players. A similar class action lawsuit was brought by former NFL players against the football association. A judge upheld that suit during appeal, granting the players almost $1 billion in damages for the long-term health problems stemming from traumatic brain injury and other concussion-related injuries sustained while playing.

While modern medicine has done a great deal to show not only the prevalence of concussion and traumatic brain injury among football players, but also sub-concussive injuries, many schools seem to be slow on the uptake. The number of teams without modern safety equipment is shocking, as is the attitude that many coaches and school administrators take toward this increasingly important concern.