NCAA finally does the right thing with concussion proposal

Settlement of lawsuit isn't perfect, but if approved, it would greatly benefit current and former athletes

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I woke up on a stretcher.

I still can't remember hitting the receiver or anybody removing my helmet and shoulder pads, the way Ball State trainers did after a nasty collision during football practice one day in 1989.

By the time I was alert enough to realize what was happening, a doctor was studying X-rays of my head and neck area. Nothing more than a concussion, the man in the hospital examination room assured me. How did we get here? Is that an ambulance?

A day later, I felt the throbbing of a headache but an obligation to get back on the field, where any good team leader was expected to be. Nobody talked much about TBI or CTE in those days. For a starting safety like me trying to set an example and keep his job, it was all about CYA.

The recollection of my first known concussion playing college football actually is less fuzzy, and pertains more directly to Tuesday's preliminary NCAA settlement to a class-action head injury lawsuit that would prevent athletes from returning to practice or a game the day they are concussed.

As a freshman enjoying his second college Saturday, I collided with a 6-foot-5, 250-pound tight end from Miami of Ohio who was stretching for a pass 20 yards deep along the hash mark. He was defenseless. I was eager to make an impression, and I did — on my forehead. Our helmets said hello; our senses said goodbye.

We both stayed down after the violent hit, briefly, and I returned a few plays later, even if the stars in my eyes remained. Even more vivid than the play, I recall the horror on my parents' faces postgame upon seeing the swollen black-and-blue bruise just below my hairline.

Concussion protocol?

Remarkably, for too long in college football it has been too vague. Though awareness has improved, from Ball State to big-time programs, typically post-collision procedures consisted of asking the player how he felt and trusting his response. It was nobody's fault and everybody's fault.

As educated and attentive as trainers were, never have they been guided by a uniform NCAA standard — until Tuesday's development that, if approved by a U.S. district judge, will make the game a safer and smarter environment. File this under better late than never.

Other terms of the proposed agreement require the NCAA to fund a $70 million medical monitoring program that would allow current or former athletes to undergo neurological screening for brain damage. My readers and listeners may disagree, but fortunately no obvious mental effects from playing four years of college football linger. Yet.

But now, in case signs ever surface or I want to remove doubt, a resource would exist for me and other former college athletes thanks to the NCAA's overdue overture. The proposed settlement isn't perfect but represents progress, the latest positive sign from a more responsive NCAA in 2014 — the Year of the Student-Athlete.

Coincidentally or not, since January, when former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter pushed for the unionization of college players, the rights of student-athletes gradually have expanded. Increased awareness led to action. A spokesman for CAPA — the College Athletes Players Association — criticized Tuesday's announcement because it didn't result in any money paid to student-athletes, but such bottom-line mentalities ignore the strides that have been made recently.

After Connecticut basketball guard Shabazz Napier complained of being hungry because of scholarship restrictions, the NCAA approved unlimited meals for student-athletes. The Big Ten joined the Pac-12 in proposing guaranteed four-year scholarships. Indiana adopted an unprecedented student-athlete bill of rights.

The NCAA agreed to stop requiring athletes to sign a document authorizing the organization's use of their names and likenesses for profit. At a significant meeting Aug. 7, the NCAA likely will approve player-friendly measures that allow more autonomy for the Big Five conferences. The preliminary settlement of a 3-year-old concussion lawsuit — which doesn't cover treatment costs but still permits athletes to sue individually for damages — follows a promising trend.

One Big Ten athletic director contacted by the Tribune praised the news as "a positive step." Another acknowledged the accelerated pace of measures aimed toward improving the student-athlete experience.

"It's progress but also points out the NCAA's glacial approach in addressing a serious concern," said Michael LeRoy, a labor and employment relations professor at Illinois. "Essentially, the NCAA needed prodding by a lawsuit."

Ironically, had the student-athletes suing been more unified, perhaps the NCAA might have been prodded to invest even more.

"This settlement also speaks to the lack of sophistication of the plaintiff class," LeRoy said.

Whatever compelled it, the NCAA saw an opportunity to do the right thing — a long time coming for concussion-awareness advocates.

Leaders finally used their heads. In the process, they protected thousands more.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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