Four grieving families have filed lawsuits against the NCAA, alleging the organization is responsible for the death of their loved ones. The lawsuits argue that repeated concussions and head injuries caused long-term brain disease that led to the former players’ deaths. The lawsuits once again bring to the forefront the role that sports organizations play in ensuring their players are adequately protected from concussions, and how much those organizations knew about the risks associated with repeated traumatic brain injuries.
Widow of Cullen Finnerty Files Wrongful Death Lawsuit Against NCAA
Cullen Finnerty, who played quarterback for Grand Valley State University, is celebrated as the winningest quarterback in NCAA history. His record from 2003 to 2006 with Grand Valley State was an astounding 51-4. During his time playing, however, Finnerty suffered multiple concussions and hits to his head.
In 2013, only seven years after he last played for Grand Valley State, Finnerty went on a fishing trip as part of a family vacation in Michigan. During that trip, he phoned his wife to say he needed to get out of the water because two men were following him. It was not the first time Finnerty made such a claim. He then went missing and three days later was found dead, at the young age of 30.
An autopsy found Finnerty died from pneumonia from inhaling his vomit after he became confused. An examination, however, also showed that Finnerty had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition linked to repeated brain injuries. Although experts said Finnerty’s chronic traumatic encephalopathy was moderate and likely not the sole cause of his death, the disorientation caused by the brain disease may have been a factor.
As with other wrongful death lawsuits against sports organizations, the suit filed by Jennifer Finnerty, Cullen Finnerty’s widow, alleges the NCAA did not adequately recognize and monitor concussive injuries, did not inform athletes about the dangers of repeated brain injuries, and did not monitor player health after athletes suffered concussions.
“For decades, the NCAA has been aware—through its own institutional knowledge, medical science, and news articles about former football players—that severe head impacts can lead to long-term brain injury, including memory loss, dementia, depression, and CTE,” the lawsuit alleges. It goes on to argue that the NCAA recklessly ignored the information it had and did not implement reasonable protocols to manage concussions and protect players.
Additional NCAA Brain Injury Lawsuits Filed
In addition to Finnerty’s lawsuit, wrongful death suits have been filed by the widow of Jeff Staggs, linebacker for San Diego State; the widow of Rodney Stensrud, running back for UCLA and Long Beach State; and the mother of Doug MacKenzie, fullback for USC.
In a statement, Dorothy MacKenzie-Schmidt said the lawsuit was filed to force a change in the organization and to make football a safer sport. Doug MacKenzie died in 2018 at age 59. He had suffered a stroke two years prior. The lawsuit alleges he suffered from delirium and depression related to brain damage.
In addition to playing for San Diego State, Jeffrey Staggs also played for the San Diego Chargers. He died in 2014 at the age of 70, and a subsequent autopsy revealed Staggs had chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The lawsuit filed by Sara Staggs argues her husband’s death is linked to the NCAA’s reckless disregard for player health.
Staggs’ lawsuit argues that collegiate athletes may not recognize the symptoms of a concussion, possibly because the effect of the concussion prevents athletes from identifying their injury. As a result, athletes might push themselves to return to a game sooner than they should, increasing the chance of a more severe brain injury. Furthermore, Staggs alleges the NCAA knew since at least 1933 about the dangers associated with a brain injury but did not protect athletes.
NCAA Concussion Settlement
In June 2018, the NCAA settled a concussion-related lawsuit filed by Debra Hardin-Ploetz, who filed the lawsuit after her husband, Greg, died. Greg Ploetz was a linebacker and defensive tackle for the University of Texas. Following his death, an autopsy revealed he had Stage 4 CTE.
The terms of the settlement are confidential. Before the settlement, however, the jury received information from a deposition by Brian Hainline, NCAA’s chief medical officer, acknowledging a link between football and degenerative brain disorders.
Other Sports Organizations Also Facing Brain Injury Claims
The NCAA isn’t the only sports organization to face claims related to concussions and severe brain conditions. The NHL and NFL have faced lawsuits, while experts question whether FIFA—which oversees soccer—has done enough to prevent brain injuries to its players.