University of Richmond is being sued for its alleged failure to disclose the risk of repetitive head injuries and long-term brain damage to university football players in a class-action lawsuit that has the potential to include dozens of former players between the years 1952 and 2010.
The plaintiff, Fredrick Pettus, played defensive tackle at Richmond from 1987–1991 but ended his career early because of concussions. Pettus now suffers from depression, memory loss, dizziness, fatigue, irritability, numbness and tingling, sleeping disorders and traumatic brain injury, according to the complaint.
The class-action lawsuit, which lists both University of Richmond and the NCAA, is one of 43 similar suits filed this year by the Chicago-based law firm Edelson PC against a university.
“There were no adequate concussion management protocols or policies in place to address and treat concussions sustained by student-athletes during practice and in games,” from the inception of Richmond’s football program until 2010, the complaint states.
Football players are particularly susceptible to brain damage such as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), an advanced form of brain death that manifests similarly to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The complaint alleges that University of Richmond and the NCAA took no steps to inform players of these risks or the link between head injuries and football.
“Unfortunately, for decades, Defendants Richmond and NCAA knew about the debilitating long-term dangers of concussions, concussion-related injuries, and sub-concussive injuries (referred to as “traumatic brain injuries” or “TBIs”) that resulted from playing college football, but actively concealed this information to protect the very profitable business of ‘amateur’ college football,” the complaint states.
Richmond’s Athletic Department did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
“The point of all these cases, and this one is no different, is to seek out compensation for the suffering that these guys have gone through, for the time and effort that they gave to these football programs,” Edelson PC attorney Chris Dore said. “(Players) have, as a result, lifetime problems. We are looking to get them access to the proper resources they need to get the proper medical care and other care.”
The lawsuit was filed in Indiana earlier this week, but within the next ten days it will be moved to federal court in Chicago, Illinois, along with the other 42 cases filed by Edelson as part of a legal process called multi-district litigation. The process links similar cases across the country and moves them before a single judge, expediting the legal proceedings while keeping them separate cases.
This is not the first head-injury-related lawsuit filed by a former Richmond football player.
In 2011, Richmond alumni Ray and Mary Ann Easterling sued the NFL over brain damage Ray incurred during his football career in a lawsuit that snowballed into a class-action settlement that covers more than 20,000 retired NFL players and is worth more than $1 billion. Players have appealed that settlement on the grounds that the NFL still is not adequately reimbursing retired players. The United States Supreme Court is weighing whether to hear the appeal.
Ray Easterling played defensive back for the Richmond Spiders and the Atlanta Falcons and suffered from CTE after he retired from football. He descended into dementia, paranoia, depression and violent mood swings as a result of the brain damage, and he committed suicide in 2012.
Mary Ann Easterling does not blame the University of Richmond for her husband’s brain damage, pointing out that even her husband’s psychiatrist did not know the extent that brain damage affected football players.
“I lay (the blame) totally at the feet of the NFL,” she said. “They are the ones who can see the long-range effect of things.”
Given that there are significantly more teams and more players per team in the NCAA than in the pros, this round of litigation has the potential to dwarf the Easterlings’ lawsuit against the NFL.
A 2015 Collegian investigation found that while members of Richmond’s football team are well educated on concussion prevention and protocol, its players do not learn why concussions are dangerous. It makes Mary Ann’s blood boil, she said, that four decades after Ray graduated and four years after his suicide in 2012, University of Richmond still does not educate its football players on the long-term effects of concussions even though the science has now crystallized.
“These are smart young men, they need to be fully informed, just like any other risk to the body,” she said. “This is a risk to their body, this is a risk to their mental health, their brains. They need to know it might impair them.”
Chris Jones, director of sports medicine and head athletic football trainer at Richmond, told the Collegian in April 2015 that, because of the scientific uncertainty surrounding head injuries, explaining the dangers of CTE to every Richmond football player amounted to a scare tactic. Jones said that making sure players report concussions was more important than players understanding the potential long-term implications.
“You’ve gotta speak to your audience in terms they can understand,” Jones said in the April 2015 interview. “Talking about CTE and things like that, that might be too complex. A lot of them are very smart individuals, but for a large audience, the key is educating them about how they can identify if they have a concussion so they self report.”
Dore was taken aback by Jones’ words.
“I think that is terribly troubling,” Dore said. “I find it very troubling that there would be any hesitation to provide this information to young men. Kids. Eighteen, 19, 20-year-old guys getting out onto the field to represent the university, to limit in any way the explanation to them or to think they are unable to understand it is, frankly, offensive.”
In November 2014, former Richmond football player and senior Kurt Schmitz died suddenly because of complications from a heart condition. Schmitz left the football team after suffering multiple concussions that inhibited him from living a normal life, including difficulty reading, remembering conversations and focusing for months after his last concussion.
After his death, Schmitz’s brain was donated to the Concussion Legacy Foundation and examined by Dr. Ann McKee, a highly experienced CTE researcher who has examined dozens of NFL players’ brains. McKee found a split in Schmitz’s cerebral membrane, though she did not have evidence to confirm CTE. “The split in the membrane was likely caused by [repetitive head impacts], but we cannot be 100% sure,” McKee wrote in an email.
Schmitz did not report his concussions to the coaching staff, which he later said he regretted. He was unaware of the long-term consequences when he hid his symptoms.
“Our complaints allege that this information was widely available, widely known to the universities, to the NCAA, to the conferences and that they did not act responsibly with that information,” Dore said. “They had a duty to act on it, but they did not.”
Contact associate editor Danny Heifetz at email@example.com