Two years to the day after Frostburg State University football player Derek Sheely sustained a fatal head injury during practice, his family filed a wrongful death lawsuit Thursday against the NCAA, coach Tom Rogish and several others.
Sheely collapsed following a preseason drill at the Division III school in western Maryland and died six days later on Aug. 28, 2011.
“Utter incompetence, egregious misconduct, false hope and a reckless disregard for player health and safety led to the tragic death of Derek Sheely,” the 63-page complaint obtained by The Washington Times said.
Also named in the lawsuit filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court are Frostburg running backs coach Jamie Schumacher, assistant athletic trainer Michael Sweitzer Jr. and helmet manufacturer Schutt Sports.
Sheely’s parents, Kenneth and Kristin, and sister, Keyton, live in Germantown. They’re all plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
“It is inconceivable to us how, with all the attention on concussions, there is still no unified enforcement to prevent dangerous drills, stop false safety claims or ensure proper medical attention to concussed athletes,” the family said in a statement released to The Times. “We are haunted by the knowledge that Derek’s death was preventable and we feel an obligation to share lessons that could prevent other children from suffering Derek’s fate.”
The complaint lays out a detailed series of events that led to the death it asserts was preventable.
A senior fullback and team captain who majored in history and political science, Sheely hoped to work for the Central Intelligence Agency one day. But four times in a three-day span that August, Sheely started bleeding “profusely” from his forehead after sustaining hits in full-contact exercises similar to Oklahoma drills where the fullback and linebacker collide at full speed. Two players were concussed during the drill earlier in the preseason.
The tempo wasn’t unusual; Frostburg’s first full day of practice in 2011 included four hours of contact.
“Preseason practices at Frostburg served more as a gladiatorial thrill for the coaches than learning sessions for the players, the lawsuit said. “Practice involved virtually unlimited, full-contact, helmet-to-helmet collisions.”
Each time Sheely’s forehead wound reopened, Sweitzer put on a bandage, allowed him to return to practice, the lawsuit claimed, and didn’t evaluate him for concussion or make certain his helmet fit properly.
During the drills, Schumacher allegedly encouraged players to “lead with your head” and use your “hat first” and cursed at them if they didn’t comply.
Earlier that month, a Schutt Sports representative told Sheely that the company’s DNA Pro Plus helmet the fullback wore “can prevent head injuries.” Sheely had been diagnosed with a concussion the previous season.
On Aug. 22, 2011, Sheely was bandaged and returned to contact for the final time. After another drill, he told Schumacher that he “didn’t feel right” and had a “headache.”
“Stop your bitching and moaning and quit acting like a pussy and get back out there Sheely!” the lawsuit claims Schumacher said.
Injured players, the lawsuit said, including those with concussions were labeled as “gripers” and forced to clean the field following practice.
Sheely resumed the 7-on-7 drill and, after colliding with a defensive back, collapsed on the sideline. Several surgeries to relieve massive brain swelling followed, but he never regained consciousness before dying at the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.
A Frostburg State representative declined to comment on the lawsuit, and the NCAA didn’t immediately return a request for comment.
In December 2011, Sheely’s mother, Kristen, wrote an extended letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert that expressed surprise the organization hadn’t investigated the circumstances around her son’s death. NCAA health and safety director David Klossner sent a four-paragraph response four months later. The letter extended condolences, noted that each school is responsible for the welfare of athletes and that risk can’t be completely removed from athletics. Klossner suggested the mother visit the NCAA’s health and safety web page.
This is the latest in a deluge of litigation targeting the NCAA. Among them is a federal lawsuit seeking class-action status on behalf of four former college athletes claiming the organization doesn’t do enough to protect athletes from head injuries. The case was stayed earlier this month as the parties enter settlement discussions.
Several emails unearthed in that case, however, are cited in the laundry list of allegations against the NCAA in the Sheely lawsuit. They include an April 2008 email to the NCAA from Division III football player Rickey Hamilton.
“There are multiple players on my team who have suffered injuries and have not had the correct treatment for them,” Hamilton wrote. “We are trying to see what we can do about this because this is not fair to the student athletes who put their all into something and can’t even get the proper treatment needed.”
The NCAA requires each member school to have a concussion management plan on file, but Klossner admitted in a deposition earlier this year that the plans aren’t reviewed or enforced.
“The Plaintiffs,” the lawsuit said, “have endured and they will continue to endure an unbearable amount of emotional pain each time they walk past Derek’s empty bedroom, touch his clothing or a photograph or paper which relates to Derek, watch a football game, see a commercial produced by the NCAA, see the NCAA’s insignia, see the number ‘40’ [Derek’s jersey number], among multiple other pain-staking moments.”