Concussion lawsuits, once synonymous exclusively with the National Football League, have trickled down through the college ranks and seeped their way to the high school level.
And the effects are potentially devastating.
“I think it could eventually be the death knell for football at the high school level,” said Elizabethton athletic director Mike Wilson. “If high schools have to be worried about being sued for millions of dollars, are we going to be forced to carry liability insurance? And eventually if insurance companies are paying big settlements, they will pass the cost along to people and it could become cost prohibitive.
“Football is so popular it’s hard to believe it would go away. But public schools can’t be exposed to those lawsuits very long.”
Here’s where the sky-is-falling radar comes in: Public school systems have already been sued, and monetary judgments rendered against them. According to ESPN.com, a teen partially paralyzed at a Colorado football practice won an $11.5 million judgment against his high school district, some school personnel and the Riddell helmet company. Also, a San Diego school district agreed to pay $4.4 million to a man who was a teenaged high school football player when he suffered a severe brain injury.
And earlier this year in Pennsylvania, Zachary Alt was awarded $20,000 after suing the Highlands School District (near Pittsburgh) because he suffered multiple concussions playing football. In Alt’s case he was late or absent for two-thirds of his classes after the injuries, but his grades actually rose as teachers wrote papers for him so he could pass.
How long would it take a school system to recover from losing a big chuck of money in a lawsuit? Consider this: Brentwood Academy’s lawsuit against the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association — which lasted 10 years in the judicial system before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in favor of the TSSAA in 2007 — nearly dealt a financial death blow to the organization that governs high school athletics in this state. Stephen Hargis of the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported recently the TSSAA began defense of that lawsuit with a net worth of $1.6 million — a sports-related surplus school districts could only imagine in their dreams — and it took nearly $3 million to defend the case. It took seven years for the TSSAA to fully recover financially.
All of those circumstances notwithstanding, the dramatic increase of understanding across the nation about the dangers of concussions could mean more people will find reasons to sue school systems.
“It’s a real threat to high school athletics as a whole,” said Wilson. “I would hate to see high school athletics go away, but schools are scared to death of getting sued.”
One of the reasons for that fear is the financial makeup of high school athletics.
“People have no idea how much money it takes to run an athletic program,” said Wilson. “They don’t realize athletics run off their own revenues. There isn’t $30,000 or $40,000 in the school budget for athletics. I don’t think people understand this. In most school districts, what they are paying are just the coaching supplements. They don’t give athletics money.”
So where does the money come from for baseball, tennis, cross country, soccer and other sports? It’s the money beast that is football, which is also the most concussion-probable sport.
“Football is the motor that drives the whole program,” said Wilson. “The only sports that make money here are football and, at times, basketball. In order to run an athletic program, you need a sport that makes tons of money. We have to pay for bus drivers and a myriad of expenses, like over $1,000 for membership dues in the TSSAA. On top of that we have to pay $5 per (football player) for catastrophic insurance.
“Then you have officials and all of the equipment, like in wrestling every once in a while we have to buy mats that cost over $1,000. And football helmets are incredibly expensive. We have them checked every year, and we replace a percentage of them every year through a program with Riddell.”
Wilson said he at least hopes this financial soft footing could protect schools from some lawsuits.
“A lot of people look at college and pro teams and think there’s a lot of money to be had there,” said Wilson. “They might look at high schools and say there’s not much there for you to get. I may be incorrect, but it’s not like we’re a multi-million dollar corporation.”
Also, Wilson said people should think twice before suing high schools — as long as the schools are doing the right things.
“I don’t mean to be insulting to anyone, but when you put your kids in athletics you’ve got to understand there are risks involved,” said Wilson. “Every year kids tear their ACLs. Are people going to sue us because their kid got a torn ACL playing a sport they were not required to play?
“The lawsuit could come if someone at the school did something inappropriate that led to an injury, or if an injury occurred and the school didn’t do something about getting treatment. If we are doing everything we’re supposed to do, and your kid collides with another kid and gets a concussion — or God forbid worse — you chose to let your kid play. We weren’t negligent in any way. There are certain risks you assume when you let your kids play.”
Also, most schools are doing everything they can to cover all of the bases, Wilson said.
“The basic protocol is really strict,” said Wilson. “If a kid shows any signs of a concussion, he’s out of the game and he can’t play or practice again until thoroughly checked by a doctor who works in the area of brain injuries. They can’t just go see Dr. Smith, their local primary care physician. They have to get a return-to-play form.”
Daniel Boone is one school taking extra measures to protect players from concussions. Athletic director Danny Good said two coaches are assigned to gauge the helmets daily to make sure they have enough air in them.
Although football is a tough sport, it’s not the only one capable of producing concussions.
“It could happen in any sport,” said Wilson. “I’m a parent with three kids. I have a son who plays baseball, football and basketball. He could get seriously hurt in any of them. He could get hit in the head with a baseball, or get undercut going in for a layup in basketball. There are risks in any sport.”
Injuries have always been a threat in high school sports. But concussion litigation could threaten a different kind of impact on high school athletics in years to come.