Estate of Former UNC Player Sues NCAA and ACC

The estate of former University of North Carolina offensive lineman, Ryan Hoffman, has sued both the ACC and NCAA on claims of negligence, breach of contract, and unjust enrichment in relation to head injuries Hoffman sustained while playing for UNC. The action seeks to establish a class action including former UNC players or their representatives.

Hoffman’s suit alleges the ACC and NCAA failed to provide adequate medical attention addressing severe and/or multiple concussions, failed to protect Hoffman and other players from brain trauma leading to death, failed to warn Hoffman and other players that concussions can lead to other serious cognitive disorders such as dementia, depression, memory loss, and CTE, failed to implement sufficient procedures to protect Hoffman and other players from the long-term dangers associated with concussions and traumatic brain injuries, and ignored research addressing the severity of concussions and traumatic brain injuries.

Hoffman played as an offensive lineman for UNC from 1993 to 1997. He experienced several traumatic brain injuries while playing football at UNC and began experiencing cognitive issues during his final years there. His cognitive issues increased in severity after he left UNC, and as time passed. He experienced depression, mood swings, “crippling mental illness,” and other cognitive issues that made it difficult for him to succeed after college. He could not hold down a job, became homeless, and eventually took his own life at the age of 41. A post-death scan of Hoffman’s brain revealed he was suffering from the neurodegenerative disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly known as CTE.

Interestingly, the complaint cites studies warning of the dangers of traumatic brain injuries that date back as far as the 1920s. The case studies caution of the effects of concussive and sub-concussive events. One case the suit cites is a 1928 study on “punch drunk” boxers — described by Dr. Harrison Martland as prizefighting boxers who have taken several hard hits to the head and now exhibit uncertainties in movement and slowness in thinking and speech. The suit also cites works by Dr. Bennet Omalu — the neuropathologist who first discovered and published findings of CTE in football players while working and studying in Pittsburgh. Dr. Omalu’s work was criticized by football organizations because of the serious impacts it could have on the leagues and his CTE findings were not acknowledged until several years later.

Furthermore, the complaint alleges the NCAA was aware of the severe negative consequences of multiple concussions as early as 1933. It points to a NCAA medical handbook from that year specifically addressing the serious nature of concussions. The complaint also focuses on the NCAA’s alleged failure to acknowledge and implement protocols addressing the severity of concussions. The complaint alleges that despite the previous history and findings presented, the NCAA failed to take formal action until 2010. And even then, the NCAA only took action due to mounting public pressure. The suit claims the NCAA failed to take action and instead hide the evidence for its own monetary benefit.

This suit joins the ranks among many similar cases brought by former players or their estates against the NCAA and other collegiate conferences. Many against the NCAA have been combined and a settlement deal is awaiting final approval. The settlement establishes a fund to pay to screen former and current student-athletes for concussions and other sports-related trauma like CTE and to pay for concussion-related research.

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