In October, a helmet-to-helmet hit spun University of Southern California wide receiver Robert Woods around 180 degrees while he was blocking on a kick return against the University of Utah.
Woods pushed himself up, lurched toward the wrong sideline, then teetered and wobbled nine strides before plunging face-first into the midfield turf.
He pushed teammates away with weak shoves. Two trainers grasped his arms and led him off the field.
Woods missed one play before returning to the game.
The video loop is seared into Ramogi Huma’s mind and, truth be told, left the former UCLA linebacker who is president of the National College Players Association — an advocacy group for college athletes — feeling as if someone slugged him in the stomach.
“It almost felt like when you read stories about dogfighting,” Mr. Huma said. “It didn’t feel right. It cast a huge shadow over college for me. Over football, period.”
The incident redoubled Mr. Huma’s belief in the need for urgent change to how the NCAA deals with head injuries. In August, his organization distributed a five-point proposal to the NCAA and the six major conferences. The 108 words included freezing the number of regular-season football games and limiting contact in practice.
The Pac-12 agreed to a meeting. The Big Ten wrote a letter. The others? Nothing.
Head injuries have left the NFL under unflinching scrutiny over the past year. Ray Easterling and Junior Seau, among others, shot themselves and were later among the dozens of former players in which chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) was diagnosed. More than 4,000 former players are suing the league over the long-term consequences of concussions. A study from the National Institutes of Health determined that former NFL players run three times the risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases as the regular population. Every hit, every player who stumbled to the sideline, every press box announcement about a player being “shaken up” took on new meaning.
At the NCAA level, however, the issue has escaped similar furor. But a little-known concussion lawsuit against the NCAA in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Illinois is ahead of the NFL litigation, crawling through discovery that has turned over at least 130,000 pages of NCAA records to the plaintiffs. Depositions are scheduled for next month. The lawsuit could dwarf the NFL action — seeking to include every athlete who played a sport for the 1,281 NCAA-affiliated institutions. The case is part of a deluge of litigation against the NCAA, challenging a variety of actions including use of athletes’ likenesses and the penalties imposed on Penn State University as a result of the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal.
The NCAA strenuously denied the lawsuit’s allegations, including that the organization doesn’t properly protect athletes from concussions.
“I think the gap is widening between what the NFL is doing and what the NCAA is doing,” said Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player who is executive director of the Sports Legacy Institute that studies brain trauma in athletes. “There is money being made and the players have no voice in protecting themselves.”
President Obama, in an interview last week with the New Republic, expressed worry about the NCAA’s approach to concussions, particularly because college athletes don’t have a union and aren’t paid like their NFL counterparts.
In an appearance at Old Dominion University three weeks after Woods absorbed the dizzying hit, NCAA President Mark Emmert asserted that his organization is taking the lead on concussion issues. The NCAA, after all, grew out of a 1905 White House meeting called by President Theodore Roosevelt with athletics leaders from Harvard, Princeton and Yale after 18 players died during the football season.
“The NCAA was at the front of this,” Mr. Emmert said in the videotaped session. “We set up protocols now when there’s a suspicion that someone had a concussion, that coaches and trainers now have specific protocols to go through to pull a kid out of a game and you don’t play until we verify what their status is. Very few people know we’re doing that.”