Source: Sara Grim/CNN
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
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.
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