A tentative settlement announced on Tuesday in a class-action lawsuit involving athletes’ head injuries would give the National Collegiate Athletic Association new authority to require tougher return-to-play rules and to diagnose potential medical problems in thousands of current and former students.
But the agreement, which calls for the NCAA to set aside $70-million for concussion testing, does not cover players’ personal-injury claims—an omission that has riled some critics. They say the case, which includes a claim brought by a former football player at Eastern Illinois University, was intended to compensate people who face long-term health problems as a result of repeated head trauma while playing college sports.
Colleges have their own concerns about the settlement, including a requirement that they have a medical professional on the sidelines for every practice and game in the highest-contact sports: basketball, field hockey, football, ice hockey, lacrosse, soccer, and wrestling.
While many big athletics programs already provide such coverage, lower-level NCAA institutions will be hard-pressed to afford it, several athletics officials said.
The requirement could lead colleges to use graduate assistants or others with little medical training, or to cut sports altogether over fears of liability.
"I’m worried about the financial fallout from this, and how it will impact Division II and Division III, and how it’s enforced," said Tim Kelly, head athletic trainer at the U.S. Military Academy and a former member of the NCAA's Football Rules Committee. "I’ve always wondered, Do too many schools provide too many sports at a level that’s not effective?"
‘Very, Very Necessary’
Medical professionals have long pushed for more injury protections for players, arguing that coaches sometimes have too much power in return-to-play decisions and that colleges need clearer rules to avoid putting athletes at risk.
The settlement, which must be approved by a federal judge to take effect, would require NCAA colleges to conduct baseline concussion testing, prohibit players from returning to competition on the same day a concussion is diagnosed, and require annual concussion training for athletes, coaches, and athletic trainers. The agreement would also mandate that institutions track concussions and report how they are resolved.
Many of the proposed changes are already part of NCAA guidelines. But the settlement agreement would give the association more authority to enforce policies that protect athletes, said Peter A. Indelicato, a former team physician for the University of Florida.
"I think it’s a huge step and very, very necessary," said Dr. Indelicato, who has served on medical committees that have pushed for improved health protections for players. "It empowers the NCAA to raise the bar even further on what we all believe to be quality health care and safety for student-athletes."
But critics say the settlement gives the NCAA a bunch of outs. The agreement stipulates that the changes are subject to the association’s rule-making process, said Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association. In a best-case scenario, he said, the changes will be adopted by the NCAA. But the moves could be left up to the discretion of individual institutions or conferences, and some may choose not to adopt them.
"There’s no penalty—no enforcement mechanism," said Mr. Huma, a leader in the player-union movement at Northwestern University. "It just says, ‘We’ll give you a way to complain,’ and schools can say, ‘These are our guidelines.’ That’s what’s going on now."
More troubling, he said, was what the settlement left out.
"It does nothing to require the NCAA to reduce the risk of traumatic brain injury," he said, such as enforcing mandatory limits on contact in practices. If the changes don’t provide real protections for players, he said, the NCAA "shouldn’t pretend they do."
Risks vs. Rewards
Risk-management experts had a different takeaway, raising concerns about the ability of institutions to monitor athletics practices and games when they don’t have a big enough medical staff to do so.
"I worry about the Division III school where there may be one athletic trainer who has to cover a lot of different sports," said Robb Jones, senior vice president and general counsel for claims management at United Educators, a big insurer of colleges. "How’s that going to work?"
Athletic trainers say the changes could provide a boost to their profession, as many of the NCAA’s 1,000-plus colleges could need to add staff members or dedicate more money to monitor practices and games.
But some athletic trainers question who is going to want those jobs, especially with the added liability that is sure to come with them.
"Having a physician on the sideline is a great idea on paper," said one athletic trainer. "But do you really want to volunteer your time to cover a game when you know that every little thing out there is going to be held against you?"