The NCAA reached a settlement in civil court Friday with the wife of a former University of Texas football player who sued the NCAA saying it was responsible for her husband’s death.
Debra Hardin-Ploetz sued the NCAA for negligence and wrongful death in January 2017, more than a year after the death of her husband, Greg Ploetz, a defensive lineman on Texas’ 1969 national championship team. She said the NCAA was responsible for the brain injuries that led to Ploetz’s death at age 66 in May 2015.
After Ploetz’s death, researchers at Boston University concluded he had a severe case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head.
The first NCAA, CTE lawsuit to reach trial
The case of Ploetz v. NCAA was notable because it was the first of many concussion-related lawsuits against the NCAA from former college football players to reach this stage of the legal process with presentments in front of a jury. According to the Washington Post, legal observers thought the case “had the potential to set (legal) precedent and possibly lead to significant changes to football at the college level.”
Sports Illustrated legal analyst Michael McCann also explained the significance of this case reaching trial:
“NCAA witnesses will be forced to answer questions under oath about player safety with jurors watching them. Also, the viability of key defense theories against the concussion lawsuit—including assumption of risk and lack of causation—will be tested for the first time. Retired players and their attorneys will certainly gain important insights from this trial that could dramatically influence whether other former players choose to settle their claims or go to trial. The fallout of such decisions could influence how the NCAA designs game rules and protects student-athletes.”
The settlement ultimately came during the third day of the trial. Terms were not disclosed, though court documents show Hardin-Ploutz was seeking more than $1 million in damages.
“The settlement gives all parties the opportunity to resolve the case outside of a lengthy trial,” NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy said in a statement. “The NCAA does not admit liability as part of the settlement. We will continue to defend the Association vigorously in all jurisdictions where similar unwarranted individual cases are pursued. It is our hope that other plaintiffs’ lawyers recognize this is one settlement in one case.”
Did the NCAA do enough?
Like many others, Hardin-Ploetz’s attorneys alleged that the NCAA did not do enough to protect Ploetz from “the long-term effects of concussions and sub-concussive blows to the head while he played NCAA football.” Those effects ultimately contributed to his death, they said.
Ploetz, who played at Texas from 1968 to 1971 and never played professionally, dealt with depression, memory loss, confusion, erratic behavior and other symptoms commonly associated with CTE later in his life.
“During all times relevant to this complaint, the NCAA knew, or should have known, of the long-term dangers of concussions and sub-concussive blows to the head regularly suffered by intercollegiate football players,” the complaint said. “The NCAA failed to initiate policies or rules necessary to protect Gregory Ploetz in the face of long-standing and overwhelming evidence regarding the need to do so.
“The NCAA failed to educate its football-playing athletes, like Gregory Ploetz, on the long-term, life-altering risks and consequences of head trauma in football. The NCAA failed to establish known protocols system-wide to prevent, mitigate, monitor, diagnose, and treat neurological disorders.”
What has the NCAA done about concussions?
In July 2014, as part of settling a class-action lawsuit, the NCAA announced a $70 million fund to help diagnose and investigate head trauma suffered by collegiate athletes. It allowed athletes to individually sue for damages and use NCAA-funded tests to assess the extent of the athlete’s injuries.
At that time, the NCAA also announced new rules presenting guidelines for handling concussions. Also in July 2014, the NCAA put in new rules regarding contact in practice, including limiting the number of full-contact practices to no more than two per week.
Earlier in 2014, in May, the NCAA and U.S. Department of Defense announced a $30 million initiative to study concussions.
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