NCAA settles head-injury lawsuit

| Tuesday, July 29, 2014, 5:10 p.m.

CHICAGO — The NCAA on Tuesday agreed to settle a class-action, head-injury lawsuit by creating a $70 million fund to diagnose thousands of current and former college athletes to determine whether they suffered brain trauma while playing football, hockey, soccer and other contact sports.

College sports' governing body also agreed to implement a single return-to-play policy spelling out how teams must treat players who received head blows, according to a filing in U.S. District Court in Chicago. Critics have accused the NCAA of giving too much discretion to schools about when athletes can go back into games.

Unlike a proposed settlement in a similar lawsuit against the NFL, this deal stops short of setting aside money to pay players who suffered brain trauma. Instead, athletes can sue individually for damages. The NCAA-funded tests to gauge the extent of neurological injuries could establish grounds for doing that.

The settlement applies to men and women who participated in basketball, football, ice hockey, soccer, wrestling, field hockey and lacrosse. Those who've played at any time during the past half-century or more at one of the more than 1,000 NCAA member schools qualify for the medical exams.

“I think it's a positive direction,” Dr. Freddie Fu, head physician of Pitt's athletic programs, said of the policies. “I hope the resources go toward taking care of the people, helping diagnose and treat people. I hope the money won't go to the lawyers. I think much can be learned.”

Fu is chairman of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at Pitt's medical school and UPMC, which has been at the forefront of the issue since its concussion program was founded in 2000. Fu said the settlement's proposals already are in place at Pitt.

“We're ahead of the game,” he said. “We're probably the most concussion-conscious program in the country.”

Penn State spokesman Jeff Nelson said in an email that no one could comment until “medical and training staff have an opportunity to review and discuss” the settlement.

He did add, however, that “this has been our policy for at least 15 years.”

Tuesday's filing serves as notice to the federal judge overseeing the case that the parties struck a deal after almost a year of negotiations.

“I wouldn't say these changes solve the safety problems, but they do reduce the risks,” said Joseph Siprut, the lead plaintiffs' attorney. “It's changed college sports forever.”

The NCAA, which admits no wrongdoing in the settlement, hailed the settlement.

“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,” said the NCAA's chief medical officer, Brian Hainline.

Siprut added that stricter rules and oversight should help ensure the viability of football by allaying fears of parents currently inclined to not let their kids play.

“Changes were necessary to preserve the talent well of kids that feeds the game of football,” he said. “Absent these kinds of changes, the sport will die.”

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.

Staff writers Bob Cohn and Chris Adamski contributed.

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