CHICAGO — When Adrian Arrington put together a highlight reel of his college football career, the first clip showed him blasting a Purdue University receiver so viciously that the man’s helmet flew off.
That’s the way Arrington, a former defensive back, said he was told to play at Eastern Illinois University — hard, fast and without regard for safety.
Now, he said, he is living with the bleak consequences of that violence.
Arrington, 26, is one of four ex-college athletes who claim in a lawsuit winding through federal court that they suffered long-term damage as a result of concussions sustained playing football and soccer. The case is another sign of a crisis that has shaken the gridiron from Pop Warner to the pros, and has become a growing concern in sports as varied as lacrosse, baseball and diving.
Allegations of lasting neurological damage caused by concussions have prompted new safety rules and unleashed a wave of litigation: More than 4,000 former NFL players claim that the league covered up the risks associated with the injury. The NCAA has become one of the latest targets.
Arrington said he endured five concussions on the field, some so severe that he couldn’t recognize his parents after leaving the game. But several times, he said, Eastern’s team doctor cleared him to return to action just one day after his injury.
He said the repeated trauma eventually caused him to develop memory loss, migraine headaches, depression and seizures. He is unable to work, he said, and sometimes can’t even care for his young children alone for fear that he will lose consciousness and put them in jeopardy.
“There have been situations where … my mom says I’ve called her and I broke down and started crying because I’m scared,” Arrington said in his first interview since filing the lawsuit in 2011. “Am I going to be here for my kids? Am I gonna get too depressed where I end up trying to hurt myself?”
Joe Siprut, Arrington’s attorney, said he is seeking class action status for the lawsuit. The plaintiffs are focusing on the NCAA, he said, because its officials knew as early as 2003 that multiple concussions could lead to health problems, yet did not require colleges to have concussion policies until 2010.
Arrington’s lawsuit, some observers believe, is another indication that America’s most popular sport is in a fight for its existence.
“Some kind of legal action could create a domino effect and dry up the feeder programs,” said Kevin Grier, a University of Oklahoma economics professor who co-wrote a widely read essay envisioning the end of football. “These lawsuits and (possible) judgments will put more pressure on insurance companies, and that will put more pressure on schools.”
Adrian Arrington started playing football at the age of 8, seeing it as a way to escape the poverty and crime that plagued his Mississippi hometown. His family later moved to Bloomington, Ill., where he became a high school star, earning his conference’s defensive player of the year award as a senior.
He won a scholarship offer from Eastern Illinois, and after sitting out a year for academic reasons, joined the squad in 2006. He became a fixture on defense, making 154 tackles over four seasons, according to school records.
But some of those plays, he said, took a fearful toll.
Arrington doesn’t remember much about his concussions, but others have told him about the strange behavior he exhibited. Once, after coaches said he was done for the day, he prowled the sideline for his helmet as though he were going to return. Another time, he rose from a tackle to do a celebratory dance, only to stagger off the field.
Arrington’s father, George Roach, said he found his son in a stupor after he had been taken out of a game.
“I went in the dressing room and he didn’t know anything — what day it was, what quarter it was,” Roach said. “He just knew he was playing football.”
The lawsuit claims that after Arrington’s first three concussions, Eastern’s team doctor told him he could get back on the field the next day. The team sent him to a neurologist only after he started to experience seizures, he alleges, and even then he continued to play, suffering two more concussions before leaving the team near the end of his senior season.
Officials at Eastern declined to comment on Arrington’s claims, but said that during the time he played, the school treated concussions in accordance with the NCAA Sports Medicine Handbook. It offered no specific direction about how long an athlete should be benched.
In 2010, after the NCAA required teams to come up with concussion protocols, Eastern created a five-step process for athletes to return to play. It says they must be symptom-free for 24 hours before taking the first step — light aerobic exercise — and that only one step can be taken per day.
The protocol also calls for athletes to reveal after each step whether any of their symptoms have returned.
But Siprut, Arrington’s attorney, said that’s not good enough. He wants the NCAA to create a “bright line rule” to govern when players are taken off the field and when they’re allowed to return. Letting schools write their own rules could allow a coach to endanger his athletes’ health, he said.
“You have to take discretion away from the coaches, not because they’re bad people, but because … they’re forced to make split-second judgment calls and they’re not trained medical professionals,” he said.
The NCAA has responded in court papers that each school is responsible for protecting the health of its players, and that athletes sign forms in which they acknowledge the risk of concussions. Spokesman Christopher Radford said the organization advises teams on the best practices of managing the injury.
“The NCAA has great compassion for student-athletes who are injured as a result of training, practice, or competition, which fuels our desire to make student-athlete safety our top priority,” he said.
Siprut is seeking unspecified financial damages, as well as the establishment of an NCAA trust fund to pay for the medical monitoring of all former athletes who suffered concussions. He also wants the NCAA to eliminate “the coaching of tackling methodologies that cause head injuries.”
©2013 Chicago Tribune
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