Tony Dorsett has signs of a brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). It has been linked to long term exposure to minor head injuries. The worst of these head injuries, when we recognize them, are called concussions. A concussion happens when the head hits an object, or a moving object hits the head. All concussions are mild forms of Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI).
Dorsett played and won the Heisman Trophy at Pitt, then played for 12 seasons in the NFL. He was one of the best athletes ever in the NFL. He lead Pitt to the National Championship in 1976 and beat our Athens, Georgia rival 27-3 in the Sugar Bowl. He will always have a place in my heart, even if for that reason alone.
His announcement last week brings to the forefront an issue that could threaten the existence of college football: where does the liability for the long term effects of these head injuries lie? For players like Dorsett, the NFL has agreed to establish a fund to cover present and future claims. What about Georgia Tech and the NCAA? If a former Tech player were diagnosed with CTE and filed suit against the school, how would that impact the finances of football? Maybe we could weather that storm and be OK. Not so if several players sued at once.
Our defense would certainly be that, while some blame could be placed on the impact of collisions experienced while they played football at Tech, they had already been playing football for up to ten years by the time they arrived on campus. Furthermore, the teams where they played during those years had none of the sophisticated head gear used in the NCAA. Surely, our attorneys would say, they already had early symptoms of CTE by the time they played for Tech.
If that defense were successful, the lawyers for these former players would find the high schools where these men played and sue the school systems. I am not sure about the school systems where you live, but my county system could not weather even one lawsuit claiming TBI caused long term health problems. Even if we won, the cost would be enormous.
So, what would happen if a suit were filed in Craven County, NC claiming head injuries experienced while playing at New Bern High School caused CTE in a former player? What would that lawsuit cost Craven County? Maybe a million dollars or more, but let's assume it was half that. My county school board (we are the county next door) will hustle out to the sports injury insurance market and try to buy long term insurance for these injuries. The first thing they will discover is the costs are very high. Estimates for the long term costs of TBI treatment and care are somewhere between $600,000 to almost $2 million. That's on top of the costs for defending a lawsuit.
My county will drop its football program from the middle and senior high schools as soon as these costs are imminent and will switch their fall sports emphasis to soccer, an already very popular spring sport. If we drop football, how many other NC high schools will follow us? I am not sure, but the poor counties in NC will likely be in lock step. The big metro area systems may hang on a bit longer, but eventually they will drop football, too.
You don't need a Georgia Tech degree to see what happens next. It won't happen in my lifetime, as I am already retirement age, but you guys still in school, or just graduating, could see the end of football. How do you feel about that?