A former University of North Carolina football player has sued the Atlantic Coast Conference and the NCAA in federal court in Indianapolis, claiming his life changed after hits he took in practice and on the field caused concussions.
William Crawford sued the Indianapolis-based NCAA and the football powerhouse ACC conference Thursday. Crawford was an offensive lineman for the Tar Heels from 1978 to 1982 whose suit seeks a class action of all former UNC football players from 1953-2010, when the NCAA instituted concussion protocols.
The suit alleges defendants “orchestrated an approach to football practices and games” that ignored, aggravated and enhanced the medical risks; failed to educate players on the link between traumatic brain injury and chronic damage illness and decline; and failed to timely implement “return to play” guidelines for players who sustained concussions.
The suit asserts negligence, fraudulent concealment, breach of contract and unjust enrichment. It asks for compensatory and punitive damages for past, present and future medical and other expenses of a potential class of thousands of former UNC football players.
The NCAA vowed to fight the suit and questioned its merits.
"These lawsuits, all filed by the same counsel using the exact same language, are mere copycat activity," said NCAA Chief Legal Officer Donald Remy. "It appears that counsel is attempting to extract a bodily injury settlement through the filing of these new questionable class actions. This strategy will not work. The NCAA does not believe that these complaints present legitimate legal arguments and expects that they can be disposed of early by the court."
The suit alleges the NCAA and ACC had a duty to protect student-athletes but disregarded “decades of studies” linking concussions to long-term TBI, in which symptoms include memory loss, dementia, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, among others. The suit also alleges the sanctioning bodies concealed the dangers and refused to implement reasonable concussion protocols.
Crawford includes in the suit a narrative of a 1979 incident he said changed his life. “During contact drills, he collided with another player and sustained a concussion. His role during the drill was to hold a blocking dummy stationary while another player got a five yard running start and hit him. He was not permitted to either hit the other player, or defend himself prior to absorbing the hit. This type of violent drill was standard procedure at the University of North Carolina.” He was hit in the helmet and immediately felt different, the suit says.
“His vision became impaired and his ability to distinguish and perceive colors changed. He felt the immediate changes for a period of about 30 minutes, and later that evening, he was drowsy and sick. Immediately after the concussion, and then permanently, he began to lose his ability to focus. He would feel more sleepy after practices. His studies began to suffer. He had extreme difficulty concentrating on his studies and classes, and could not keep up.
“A former honor student in high school, Crawford’s grades tanked, he received failing grades for the first time in his life, and was forced to attend summer school classes in order to boost his GPA and maintain football eligibility,” the suit says. “His cognitive problems reached a point where he would read a page in a textbook, but not remember anything about the subject or what he had just read. These changes, and their impact on his life, became so severe that he contemplated suicide. Ultimately, Crawford decided to participate in the Boston University CTE Center study, in an effort to obtain answers.”
The suit says Crawford “now suffers from deficits in cognitive functioning, reduced processing speed, decline in attention and reasoning, loss of memory, depression, sleeplessness, and mood swings, among other issues.”
Crawford’s local counsel in the suit is the Indianapolis personal injury firm Wilson Kehoe Winingham, one of four firms involved in the litigation, William Crawford, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated v. Atlantic Coast Conference and the National Collegiate Athletic Association, 1:16-cv-1813.