The punt soared through the night air, arriving just before the tackler crashed into Derek Owens. No penalty flag was thrown, and Owens maintained one would not have been justified. It was football, the sport he still loves, despite his concussions.
“They just killed him!” Teresa Owens blurted in the stands, reacting with a mother’s horror. The strange thing was, Owens held on to the ball, jumped up and darted for the sideline. Since then, his life has not been the same.
A few days later, a Tulsa newspaper ran a brief article about the proud tackler with the headline “Headhunter.” How prophetic that was.
Owens, 22, is under medical care, about to resume his education at the University of Central Arkansas. He can never play a contact sport again. He is also one of four plaintiffs in a class-action suit that claims the N.C.A.A. has been negligent regarding awareness and treatment of brain injuries to athletes.
The suit, filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, represents Owens, Adrian Arrington and Mark Turner, recent college football players, and Angela Palacios, a former college soccer player.
The legal action comes after a five-year flurry of awareness of brain injuries in contact sports and follows lawsuits filed this year by dozens of former N.F.L. players who claim the league was negligent in its handling of brain trauma. The issue has moved from science labs to Congress and now to courtrooms, where the financial exposure of the sport’s governing bodies may be tested.
The N.F.L. is subsidizing care for some of the most seriously damaged of its former players, after public and Congressional pressure forced the league to acknowledge the gravity of the issue. But the damage did not begin with the first hit in an N.F.L. training camp. Players have been absorbing blows to the brain since they were children.
“I hear from former players who were taught spearing,” said Representative Linda T. Sánchez, Democrat of California, who has been an active participant in Congressional hearings into brain damage among N.F.L. players. Her constituents tell her how they learned to use modern helmets as weapons to injure their opponents in youth leagues or high school.
“It’s quite savage,” said Sánchez, who notes that former pro players are filing workers’ compensation claims in California because its eligibility requirements are more lenient than elsewhere. She acknowledges that college players are not salaried employees, which complicates the issue of long-term care for injured players.
But it is not impossible that an improved system of insurance and aftercare for athletes beyond their playing days could imperil football and maybe hockey and other contact sports.
Owens does not want to tear down football. With a loving smile, he recalled somebody defining it as “a violent sport, played by jerks” — including himself, of course. For now, he is a man in the shadows, dealing with the migraines and dark impulses that sometimes cause him to lock the door and stay in bed.
Before the concussions, he was an A student and a three-sport star and the lead trumpeter in his high school band, who could do mathematics in his head without a calculator or writing down the intermediate steps. After the concussions, his grades fell drastically. He dropped out for this semester because he could not memorize material for tests.
Something to Prove
Why did Owens not signal for a fair catch that night in Tulsa? He said he did not believe in fair catches because he wanted to prove that a 5-foot-8, 165-pound player could thrive in Division I football. He had high goals for himself, and still does.
Owens can recall at least five concussions since high school, but he said it was not until August 2011, nearly a year after the fearsome hit on the punt return, that anybody used the phrase “postconcussion syndrome” on him. He thought concussions were simple: “You get your bell rung. You get smoked. And then you go back in.”
A sentence at the beginning of the class-action suit reads, “The N.C.A.A. has engaged in a long-established pattern of negligence and inaction with respect to concussions and concussion-related maladies sustained by its student-athletes, all the while profiting immensely from those same student-athletes.”
The suit lists as a defendant the N.C.A.A., not the University of Central Arkansas, where Owens is still enrolled, and to which he professes loyalty. A former player at another university was originally listed as a plaintiff, but on Nov. 19, the suit was amended to drop that player and include Arrington, who played for Eastern Illinois University; Turner, formerly with Fordham University; and Palacios, who played soccer for Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas. The suit at first concentrated on football but now notes concussions in other sports.
Calling the suit “wholly without merit,” Donald Remy, the N.C.A.A. general counsel and vice president for legal affairs, said the organization had “great compassion” for injured athletes and had been “at the forefront of safety issues.”
“The N.C.A.A. is an attractive target for opportunistic plaintiffs’ class-action lawyers,” Remy said in a statement via e-mail, adding, “To date, none of these cases have been proven to have merit.”
The suit is spearheaded by Steve W. Berman of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro L.L.P., based in Seattle. The firm says it “represents workers, whistleblowers, investors and consumers in complex litigation” against the tobacco and automobile industries, among others.
Since 2009, Berman has represented Sam Keller, a former college quarterback whose suit claims college athletes should be paid for the use of their likeness in official N.C.A.A. video games.
In an interview in his 33rd-floor office overlooking Seattle, Berman characterized the N.C.A.A. as “an uncaring cartel that takes care of its own” and added, “This whole notion of protecting amateurism — that’s a farce.”
Berman is a former soccer goalkeeper at Michigan, despite his modest height of 5 feet 9 ½ inches. He attributed his ability to block shots to being smart and knowing the angles, and he says he has an affinity with Owens, who volunteers that he has a “little man complex,” trying to prove himself in a big man’s world.
Owens also acknowledges that he is fortunate in that he and his two sisters are part of a comfortable family in Russellville, Ark. His mother, Teresa Owens, was a point guard in college, which shows in her minute-by-minute vigilance in his recovery. His father, Lee Owens, was a star college baseball player, and Derek ruefully admits he probably should have concentrated on that sport, saying, “I was the ideal size for a middle infielder.” He readily identifies himself as a Southerner who loves hunting and the outdoors, and he sticks to his causes, including the sport of the South.
“I was a big-play guy,” Derek Owens said of his outstanding high school career, sounding matter of fact, not boastful. “We’d get in the huddle and I’d say, ‘Get me the ball and I’ll make a play.’ ” He recalls a third-down-and-35 that he converted by being inventive after making the catch.
He said he had two concussions in high school but went back in when he felt better. In the summer of 2008, he reported to workouts at Central Arkansas conducted by the players. “They said it was optional, but everybody knew it wasn’t,” he said. In a simple passing drill, without pads or helmets, he collided with a larger teammate and was so stunned that he had to give up the so-called optional drills. He said no trainer was present, and the university had not given any instructions about potential concussions or other injuries.
When the actual camp began, Owens was feeling better. He dressed for the first game but did not play, and in midweek he collided with a large linebacker and went down again. He was driven to his apartment, and he said the solicitous team trainer told a roommate to wake Owens every few hours to make sure he was all right.
Teresa Owens said she never would have known her son was injured if she had not sent him a text message. When he responded with gibberish, she drove the 45 minutes to campus and found him bedridden, in a fog. The school decided to give him redshirt status, to hold him out for the season, but he said there was never any discussion of potential lingering conditions.
He had signed an official N.C.A.A. form agreeing to report any injuries so they could be treated. (The athletic director, Brad Teague, said the university declined to comment on the suit.)
Owens played in 2009, mostly as a spare receiver and punt returner and holder for placements. Early in 2010, the Tulsa long snapper raced downfield and nailed Owens, later professing regret that Owens’s helmet did not come flying off — a sure ticket to prominence in the brave new world of YouTube, in which others’ pain or embarrassment becomes instant entertainment for the masses.
Although Owens jogged off the field, he said his head went “wom-wom-wom” when he removed his helmet. In the bus heading back to campus, he began to feel sick. Afterward, he said, he could not concentrate in class, but he managed to play all 11 games that season.
By the spring of 2011, Owens was failing and dropping courses he had previously aced. He began using alcohol and marijuana for the first time — to dull the pain, he said.
Owens claimed he was unaware of the growing public evidence of long-term dementia suffered by former N.F.L. players like John Mackey and Dave Duerson, who recently committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest and willed his intact brain for an autopsy (which showed trauma-induced disease).
But the rising evidence of brain damage has led to public dialogue, including a symposium on concussions Nov. 16, sponsored by the New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies and the N.Y.U. Langone Medical Center.
One of the major themes, said Robert Boland, an associate professor and panelist, was whether football or any sport “with so much collision and contact” could survive, as “acceptably safe.” The quandary, Boland added, is that college players are demonstrably bigger, faster and more lethal than a generation or two ago, but treatment is also likely to be better at the so-called programs than at smaller rural high schools.
Last August, the Owens family decided to spend $1,500 for testing by Dan Johnson, a clinical neuropsychologist in Jonesboro, Ark. The report, made available by Owens, noted his above-average mental skills but added, “He is likely experiencing postconcussive syndrome symptoms, which are adversely affecting his cognition in several key ways as well as emotional/behavioral status.”
The report praised Owens’s decision to give up contact sports. A medical doctor subsequently put Owens on two medications, which have alleviated headaches and reduced depression and anxiety.
Feeling badly about slumping as a student and no longer being a player, Owens took off the fall semester. He went to work at a dude ranch in Colorado and, while escorting a group of lawyers on a riding trail, had a conversation with Elizabeth A. Fegan of Chicago, a colleague of Berman’s. As his mood improved, Owens was willing to be part of a class-action suit.
Push for Follow-Up Care
Berman said he wanted to force the N.C.A.A. to arrange insurance that would provide for training and evaluation for players and follow-up care for former athletes.
“The goal of the lawsuit is to force the N.C.A.A. to take this seriously, so that they are really policing and making the effort that is required to prevent these injuries,” Berman said. The suit alleges that the N.C.A.A. makes an annual profit of $750 million, and that top schools make fortunes from television contracts. Berman said the profit could pay for improved medical care: “And it could be that when they are hurt economically, that’s what it will take to take these injuries seriously.”
Recalling his own college career as a soccer goalkeeper, Berman said it was unrealistic to expect athletes to monitor their own injuries, particularly involving concussions.
“You know you can get hurt, but you think you’re invincible,” he said. “You never think about the cost of an injury, who’s going to bear those costs.” Berman added, “If you break an arm, you break an arm.” But with a concussion, “a lot of these times, it comes and goes and you don’t really know you’ve hurt yourself.”
Berman described the series of concussions sustained by Owens: “He’s a very bright kid, but he was clueless. If the N.C.A.A. was doing its job, he should not have been clueless. “
There is considerable evidence that all levels of organized football have paid more attention to brain injuries in recent years, as evidence began to accumulate about concussions and continuing damage to former players. The N.C.A.A. has a relationship with the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center at the University of North Carolina, which recommends a seven-day shutdown for players with concussions. After studies indicated that a majority of concussions took place in practice, the Ivy League cut back contact practices to two a week.
The 2011-12 N.C.A.A. Sports Medicine Handbook devotes four pages (pp. 53-56) to brain concussions, including symptoms, and it lists a revised 2010 “management plan” for all athletes showing signs of concussion. But the Owens suit insists the N.C.A.A. guidelines of the time did not prepare him for how he would feel after repeated concussions.
“I consider myself lucky,” Owens said. “I’m not drooling. I can perform daily tasks.” As he gears up to return to classes next semester, he said he could feel a “night-and-day difference.” He said his headaches, depression and anxiety had gone down in recent weeks, but his mother and his girlfriend, Shelby Twedt, said he still had his down moments.
Owens loves his sport and his college. But he said he would be happier if people could pursue football and other contact sports — even field punts — and be better prepared, and treated for whatever comes crashing down on them.