Washington, DC—Professional and amateur sports leagues have finally begun to make key changes to protect players against traumatic brain injuries, largely as a result of major litigation against the National Football League (NFL) and other organizations, according to anew reportby the American Association for Justice (AAJ). The civil justice system, through a small number of lawsuits, has driven a radical change in the health care approach to professional and student athletes. The report comes just days before the theatrical release of the movieConcussion, starring Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a neuropathologist who first discovered a specific form of brain disease in former NFL players.
“When medical research began to show the long-term impacts of repeated concussions, almost no one did anything. Worse, many, including the NFL, largely denied a problem existed. It was only when injured players took sports leagues, colleges and school districts to court that this serious safety issue was acknowledged and addressed,” said AAJ president Larry A. Tawwater. “If it weren’t for the civil justice system, the leagues would probably still be ignoring this issue, and players and their families would be suffering from more untreated long-term brain injuries.”
The AAJ report, Concussions and the Courthouse, chronicles decades of concussion incidents in sports from soccer to hockey to football, and the ever-strengthening research on the cognitive effects of repeated brain trauma.
The report shows how high-profile lawsuits against sports leagues, school districts, and colleges finally pushed administrators and the insurance companies that back their organizations to introduce strict protocols and concussion management policies. Most prominently, the lawsuit by former NFL players against the organization forced a dramatic change in attitudes. Sideline concussion protocols, independent spotters and medical examiners, and baseline neurological testing have become common in professional sports.
“Today, we continue this conversation to not only protect those former NFL players, but also all athletes – including millions of children – involved in contact sports, so that they can avoid this public health concern involving repeated head trauma,” said attorney Jason Luckasevic, who brought concussions in sports to international attention when he filed the first two lawsuits against the NFL on behalf of retired players. “I believe there is a need to make sure our athletes are not at increased risk for chronic brain damage as a result of the careless actions of leagues.”
The effects of repeated brain trauma on minors are particularly alarming. In 2006, 13-year-old Zackery Lystedt suffered a concussion during a junior high school football game, and sat out just three plays before returning to the game. He later collapsed and was airlifted to a hospital, where doctors removed portions of his skull to relieve pressure in his brain. It would be nine months before Lystedt could speak again and 13 months before he could move his arms or legs.
“I don’t think people understand the implications of a mismanaged concussion,” said Victor Lystedt, Zackery’s father. “Knowing that this happens to many student athletes, we need to educate as many people as we possibly can. We want people to understand that a concussion is a brain injury. We can’t see them or touch them, but we know that they are catastrophic if not managed correctly.
In 2009, Washington state passed the so-called Zackery Lystedt Law, becoming the first state in the nation to enact a comprehensive youth sports concussion safety law. The law, also known as “When in Doubt, Sit Them Out,” was drafted by Richard Adler, Lystedt’s attorney. Since then, every state except Wyoming has enacted some form of the “When In Doubt, Sit Them Out” law.
“You can’t necessarily prevent brain injuries in sports, but you can prevent the bad outcomes of not treating them properly,” Adler said. “The laws have had a tremendous effect in raising awareness and preventing death and catastrophic losses to families. That’s the greatest thing that’s occurred.”
The AAJ report examines the laws in each of the 50 states on concussions in youth sports. The report calls on all states to pass laws to require that:
Students who may have suffered a concussion be cleared by a health professional that is either a licensed physician, or someone trained specifically in Traumatic Brain Injury management;
Parents of students who have suffered a concussion are notified; and
Medical trainers be present at all games involving collision sports.
The American Association for Justice works to preserve the constitutional right to trial by jury and to make sure people have a fair chance to receive justice through the legal system when they are injured by the negligence or misconduct of others—even when it means taking on the most powerful corporations. Visit http://www.justice.org.