Dropping the Ball: The Failure of the NCAA to Address Concussions in College Football
Pretty, K. Adam, Notre Dame Law Review
"Football isn't a contact sport--it's a collision sport. Dancing is a contact sport."--Duffy Daugherty, head football coach at Michigan State University, 1954-1972 (1)
On August 22, 2011 Derek Sheely, a starting fullback on the football team at Frostburg State University, a 4755-student National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division III school, (2) collapsed on the practice field after sustaining a blow to the head during full contact preseason drills. (3) Despite the best efforts of doctors to relieve the swelling in his brain, Sheely remained in a coma for six days before passing away. (4) Sheely's head injury occurred while participating in what is known as an "Oklahoma drill," where the fullback and linebacker are aligned on opposite sides of the ball and collide at full speed. (5) A common exercise in the first few weeks of practice at the high school and college levels, the Oklahoma drill is often used by coaches to determine which players are not afraid to hit. (6) "What the [Oklahoma] drill... showed was something simpler than technique or leverage.... It showed who had a hard nose for contact and, more importantly, who didn't." (7) However, the Oklahoma drill is now rarely used at the professional level, and many commentators have been sharply critical of what such drills actually accomplish, as in many situations, "[i]t's not even about winning a one-on-one. It's just about slamming into each other." (8)
According to a wrongful death complaint filed by Sheely's family against the university, as well the NCAA and the team trainer, Sheely's head had begun bleeding profusely at least four separate times over three days of preseason practice. (9) The team trainer treated Sheely's injuries by applying a bandage to his forehead and returning him to practice, allegedly without examining Sheely to determine if he might have a concussion. (10) During practice, Frostburg State running backs coach Jamie Schumacher purportedly encouraged his players to "lead with your head" and to hit "hat first," reprimanding those players who refused to comply. (11) After one drill, Sheely allegedly complained to Schumacher that he "'didn't feel right' and had a 'headache,'" (12) to which the coach responded by yelling, "[s]top your bitching and moaning and quit acting like a pussy and get back out there Sheely!" (13) Other players alleged that teammates who reported or complained about injuries were treated as "gripers," and were often forced to clean the practice field as punishment for complaining about their injuries. (14) All of these alleged actions constitute drastic violations of the medical community's advocated best practices on concussion management. (15)
In December 2011, Kristen Sheely wrote a letter to NCAA President Mark Emmert regarding the death of her son, in which she asked for the NCAA's support in investigating the circumstances of Sheely's death. (16) The NCAA responded by stating that while "[p]art of the NCAA's core mission is to provide student-athletes with a competitive environment that is safe[,] ... each school is responsible for the welfare of its student-athletes." (17) The response letter also noted, "[u]nfortunately, neither the NCAA nor any other organization can take the risk completely out of contact sports." (18) To this point, the NCAA has not investigated further into the death of Derek Sheely. Current NCAA bylaws mandate that member institutions maintain a concussion policy on file. (19) However, the NCAA only reviews the substance of each school's policy to determine if it meets the basic requirements of the bylaws. Further, the NCAA does not conduct oversight to ensure that member schools actually enforce or carry out their concussion policies.
As highlighted by Derek Sheely's tragic story, the NCAA has a great amount of work left to do in the regulation and management of head injuries. Its failure to properly regulate concussions has already exposed the NCAA to litigation, and will likely result in future court battles as more former college football players come forward to bring suits against the NCAA and its member institutions. …