A CNN MUST WATCH: Concussions, player dies, and the NCAA looks the other way

Unnecessary roughness? Players question NCAA's record on concussions

Sara Ganim
October 30, 2014

In the early 1900s, college football was a brutal sport. An increasing number of deaths and injuries prompted action from President Theodore Roosevelt and led to the establishment of what would later be known as the NCAA.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association was founded to protect the health and safety of college football players, but more than 100 years later, it appears the organization has abandoned that directive.

In an email to CNN, the NCAA said that best health and safety practices are entrusted to the schools and that universities must police themselves.

"NCAA enforcement staff is responsible for overseeing academic and amateurism issues," the email said. "They do not have authority to make legal or medical judgments about negligence."

That raises a question about whether the NCAA will enforce the new return-to-play rules that could be imposed if a preliminary settlement reached with about two dozen former players is approved by a federal judge. The rule would prohibit players with a concussion from going back on the field the same day, but it's contingent on a vote by NCAA membership.

That's led to criticism of the settlement, which proposes a number of regulations to help protect student athletes.

If the NCAA isn't enforcing health and safety, will the new rule make a difference?

Missed signs?

In 2011, the NCAA failed to investigate what is arguably the worst-case scenario: when a player dies.

Derek Sheely, 22, collapsed on the practice field at Frostburg State in Maryland after complaining of a headache to his coaches. According to the family's lawsuit, he had been subjected to 13 hours of contact practice within three and a half days.

He died six days later.

An anonymous email later sent to the parents alleged the coaches knew he'd been bleeding with a lump on his head for several days, yet when he complained of not feeling well, one coach said, "Stop your bit****g and moaning and quit acting like a pu**y and get back out there Sheely!"

The letter says the coaches continued yelling at him after he collapsed.

A teammate, Brandon Eyring, later told CNN that there were plenty of warning signs ignored.

"They were more focused on building tough football players than on safety in my opinion,” Eyring told CNN. "It's kind of the culture. Just, again, again, the only word I can put is gladiator. You're going to fight, unfortunately to the death, I mean that's kind of how it happened and it's not metaphorical at this point, that's kind of what happened."

The NCAA, which has rules for everything from meals to autographs, has one rule when it comes to concussions: schools must have a plan. But the NCAA has no specific requirements about what must be in the plan.

The toll on young athletes

Two lives forever changed and two cut short. These four players have one thing in common: they all suffered head injuries on the field.

"I think there's a big gap in what they care about. It's pretty obvious," Derek's father, Ken Sheely, told CNN. "They haven't even been very subtle about what they care about. They will protect the safety of their pocketbook."

Sheely's attorneys say Frostburg State violated that rule but was not held accountable.

Frostburg State said it can't comment on Sheely's death because of the family's lawsuit. The NCAA said it was saddened by the death, but, "nonetheless, we disagree with the assertions and allegations made against the NCAA."

The Sheelys have sued the NCAA and, individually, the coaches and trainer involved.

The defendants responded to the lawsuit saying they are not responsible for Sheely's death and that football is a dangerous sport that always carries risk.

The $75 million settlement won't completely eliminate that risk, but it will at least establish a fund for current and former athletes to get testing for brain injuries. It also will force the NCAA executive committee to recommend that it establish, for the first time, rules that specifically dictate how schools deal with concussions.

The Sheelys are not part of the federal suit that reached a preliminary settlement. They are skeptical it will make a difference, and they're not alone. Reform advocates say it falls short of addressing key issues – such as the number of contact practices per season, which even the NFL has addressed in the past few years.

"This settlement is shameful. It definitely does not go far enough. It does not actually protect the players any better than the players are being protected now," said Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, the group that has organized or taken part in many of the recent reform movements.

Devastating effects

The NCAA has known there are two major contributors to concussions: the number of contact practices and how soon a player returns to play.

For more than a decade, the NCAA did little to address studies — even some they paid for — showing concussions have a devastating effect on college athletes, especially football players.

In 2003, the NCAA partially funded two studies that showed that athletes need a full week to recover from a concussion and that players with one concussion are likely to have more.

It wasn't until 2010 that it made any move at all on concussions. Even then, the only step it took was to put out guidelines — not rules — for best practices.

"The NCAA does have a problem," said Dr. Robert Cantu, a Massachusetts neurosurgeon who is one of the nation's top researchers for head injuries in sports.

Cantu's research has shown that concussions can lead to memory impairment, Alzheimer's disease, depression and suicide.

"I'm very disappointed that they didn't proactively put in place best practices for management of concussion when they knew what really should be done," Cantu said.

Despite all of Cantu's and other extensive research, the NCAA told CNN "there is very little published science to guide us at this point" and said that is the reason the NCAA implemented guidelines, not rules.

"The guidelines state that these recommendations may become NCAA rules as definitive medical evidence becomes available. For now, though, they are designed to set a norm for each school," the NCAA said.

Earlier this year, the NCAA announced a $30 million project with the Department of Defense to study concussions.

"It draws a lot of parallels to the cigarette makers, you know, tobacco industry," said Huma.

"They've known for quite a while of the problems associated with concussions and how they should be managed," he said. Instead of looking out for the athletes, Huma said the NCAA is "sitting back and doing nothing and cashing in on lucrative TV revenues and ticket sales. You know at the very least, if it's not illegal, it's definitely immoral."

While a rule limiting return-to-play rules could be forced on the organization as part of the settlement, nothing will change to limit contact practices.

Instead, the NCAA guidelines, still allow athletes to have contact practice twice as much as pro athletes in the NFL during the season.

During the spring practice season, the NFL has eliminated contact practice, while the NCAA has not.

That's upsetting to the parents of Owen Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania player who in 2010 became one of the youngest athletes to be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

It's a disease born from head trauma, linked to depression, and diagnosable only after death.

Thomas committed suicide at 21.

"College sports is a business," said Kathy Brearley, mother of Thomas. "We wouldn't allow a public company to behave that way with its workers."

Dr. Robert Stern, of the Sports Legacy Institute at Boston University, was part of the team that studied Owen Thomas' case. He said he was shocked to find CTE in Thomas' brain since he never had a documented concussion.

Stern thinks Thomas instead had several subconcussions, which do the same damage as a concussion but have no symptoms.

No symptoms make it silent and dangerous.

"These football hits are around 20G per hit," Stern said. "... That's probably the simplistic equivalent of a car driving 30, 35 miles per hour into a brick wall. Imagine that 1,000 to 1,500 times per year. That repetitive force to the head with the brain moving inside."

The more players practice with contact, the more susceptible they are, Stern said.

Back in the game

If a federal judge accepts the preliminary settlement, return-to-play could change in college football. Right now, there is nothing stopping a player from being put back on the field after a concussion.

An internal NCAA email that says an athlete is not "precluded from returning to athletics activities" after a concussion.

It also says, "It would not be appropriate to ... penalize a coach ... even if the student athlete was required to participate after having been diagnosed with a concussion."

That was evidenced this year when the NCAA did nothing when Michigan quarterback Shane Morris suffered a blow to the head during a televised game -- one that was obvious to viewers watching. Morris was put back into the game minutes after being hit, and the team later said it was because of a lack of communication. But the public was outraged, and Michigan's athletic director later apologized, saying the protocol would change to make sure it doesn't happen again.

That kind of self-policing doesn't always happen.

According to his lawsuit against the NCAA, that's how Adrian Arrington, 28, got hurt so badly. Arrington was first to file the lawsuit that led to the federal settlement proposal.

He says he suffers daily migraines, memory loss and frequent seizures.

He says he spent months complaining to his trainers when his symptoms began at Eastern Illinois University. But the only response he says he got was to take anti-seizure medication.

Adrian's father, George Arrington, told CNN that in September 2009, during the game that led to his son's sixth concussion, he saw the coaches getting ready to return Adrian to the field.

He "couldn't hold himself up, but he got to the sidelines. They were patting him on the back, but I knew something was wrong. … They called for him to get back into the game," Arrington said.

He got up from his seat above and ran to the sidelines.

"I said, ‘Adrian's not going back into the game.' "

George Arrington put an end to his son's football career.

Eastern Illinois University told CNN it can't comment on Arrington's allegations because he has a pending lawsuit.

But what happened to him happens to many football players. They are often returned to practice or games after concussions, simply because the NCAA has no rules to stop that from happening.

An NCAA survey done in 2010 found that half of college trainers admitted to putting an athlete back in a game after the athlete suffered a concussion. The same survey cited pressure from coaches as part of the problem.

Running out of options on the play

A recent NFL settlement would put money into the pockets of athletes with diagnosed injuries, but this settlement will not.

Instead, if accepted, it will all be designated for research, screening and lawyer fees.

Guys such as Arrington will be able to pursue personal injury claims in court. But some of the athletes with injuries will not, because their cases fall outside the statute of limitations.

One of those guys is Stanley Doughty.

Doughty was recruited by 35 schools as a break-out Louisiana high schooler and then chose to play for the University of South Carolina. He remembers two very hard hits while he was there.

"I can hear voices, but I couldn't actually move," he told CNN, recalling the first time he was hit during a practice in 2004. He says the school took him to see a specialist who told him he was fine. The next season, during a game against Tennessee, Doughty told CNN he again went numb, felt temporarily paralyzed, but was told by a trainer to "toughen up" and get back in the game.

The team's injury report for Doughty shows he had a nerve injury at the cervical spine. The school's response was that Doughty had suffered what in football is called a "stinger," or temporary numbness, and said it is common practice to send a player back into the game "after symptoms subside." The team cleared Doughty to continue playing the rest of the season.

Doughty's lawsuit says the Kansas City Chiefs' trainer told him he was too injured to play football when he left South Carolina in 2007 to play for the NFL.

His dream of playing in the pros was realized for a split second and then taken away.

"Basically they told me I could be paralyzed from the neck down," Doughty said.

South Carolina disputes that Doughty's injuries were serious and says he did not seek any further treatment after his "stinger." It says "the university provided appropriate and extensive medical care" for Doughty "including treatment by team athletic trainers, physicians and out-of-state specialists."

But now Doughty is 30, out of work and doesn't have a degree. And with this proposed settlement, he has no more legal course of action.