NCAA Significant Payout Marks a First in a Brain Injury Suit

In 2011, a Division III football player died from an injury he suffered during preseason practice. Almost five years later, the NCAA and Frostburg State settled his family’s wrongful death suit for a “landmark” $1.2 million. The family’s attorney stated, “This is a landmark settlement not just because it is the first brain-injury case that the NCAA has agreed to pay a significant amount of money to resolve, but also because the stakeholders of football are now on notice that they have an obligation to protect the health and safety of the athletes.”

In August 2011, Derek Sheely participated as usual in preseason practices. Sheely had suffered a concussion during the previous season. During the 2011 preseason practices, Sheely complained multiple times of a headache — including the day he was fatally hurt. His coach’s response: “Stop your bitching and moaning and quit acting like a p**** and get back out there, Sheely.” He died after collapsing during practice. Sheely suffered from “second-impact syndrome.” This occurs when a brain injury is sustained before a previous concussion had the chance to heal. According to Sheely’s parents and their filing, “preseason practices at Frostburg served more as a gladiatorial thrill for coaches than learning sessions for the players.”

The Sheely family alleged in their suit the school was to blame because they had multiple chances to treat the Sheely’s injury and the NCAA was responsible because it failed “to implement concussion protocol rules” or “investigat[e] his death.” The NCAA argued it has “no legal duty to protect athletes.” However, the Circuit Court Judge Boynton classified the NCAA as having a “special relationship” with its student-athletes. Boynton did not believe second-impact syndrome is an obvious risk in football; therefore, the duty to warn exists. The NCAA took heat for its comments, most markedly during a Senate committee hearing in 2014. The NCAA president criticized the “terrible” choice of words used and admitted the NCAA has “a clear moral obligation to make sure we do everything we can to protect and support student-athletes.”

With the settlement, the Derek Sheely Foundation will receive $1.2 million to put towards advancing research in brain injuries. Also, the NCAA and Frostburg State will provide a research grant to an individual researching catastrophic risk by 2018. The two defendants will fund a symposium on the subject of catastrophic risk or head injuries. Frostburg will fund a scholarship for at least ten years in Sheely’s name and retire Sheely’s number. The NCAA will produce and distribute a training video for athletic programs to become more educated on the topic of head injuries. A stipulation of the settlement: neither the NCAA nor other defendants will admit liability.

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