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The Deaths of 4 Ex-Football Players Result in Family Members Filing Suits against the NCAA

Written by Berkowitz

football helmet and stethoscope

The NCAA is under fire this week after family members filed lawsuits for the deaths of four former football players.

The widow of one Grand Valley State University quarterback, Cullen Finnerty, was just one of the members of that lawsuit. She filed her suit against the NCAA at the end of August alleging that brain disease, stemming from multiple concussions, led to her husband’s premature death.

Finnerty was a famous quarterback in NCAA history who had an impressive record at Grand Valley State from 2003 to 2006. In May 2013, he went missing during a fishing trip. He was found later in the woods – dead.

During the fishing trip, Finnerty had become anxious and confused. He told his wife that he was being followed by two men and was leaving the water.

This was not the first bout of paranoia that Finnerty had suffered. In fact, he had another incident where he thought someone was following him and he drove 150 miles to his brother’s house only to realize that no one was following him.

Who Are the Other Players in the NCAA Wrongful Death Lawsuits?

Finnerty is just one of the victims named in a lawsuit. Other family members that have filed wrongful death lawsuits include the widow of former San Diego State linebacker, Jeff Staggs; the mother of USC former fullback, Doug MacKenzie; and the widow of Rodney Stensrud, a former running back for Long Beach State and UCLA.

The families all state that they want the NCAA to acknowledge the dangers of frequent concussions on the field and to stop other football players from suffering from degenerative brain diseases. They want the game to be enjoyed, safe, and not something that affects players the rest of their lives.

When Finnerty’s autopsy was performed, it was found that he died from pneumonia after inhaling vomit. After becoming disoriented and taking painkillers, Finnerty was unlikely to know what was happening or that he needed medical attention. It was found that Finnerty had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease associated with repeated concussions.

The report stated that Finnerty suffered from depression, anxiety, and paranoia. His brain was studied intensively at Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. The researchers at the facility stated in August 2013 that the CTE’s severity in Finnerty was moderate, and that the disease alone was not the cause of Finnerty’s death.

The wrongful death lawsuit alleges that the NCAA failed to recognize concussions in players or monitor those injuries during games and practices. Families state that the NCAA also did not inform students of the risks of these injuries, nor did they monitor their health after sustaining head trauma. Families were not notified when students were injured in practice or at games, either.

The NCAA Has Settled Once Before

The NCAA settled one case with the widow of a former Texas Longhorns player back in June 2018 for an undisclosed amount. In that case, the attorney for the plaintiff argued that the NCAA was responsible for the injuries the player sustained and the death of that player that occurred 40 years after he played football.

Tackle Football before the Age of 12 Could Increase CTE Risk

One study found that the risk of developing CTE increases for those playing tackle football before the age of 12 years. The study, which was published in the Annals of Neurology, found that on average, players engaging in tackle football before 12 had cognitive disorders that appeared 13.39 years earlier. Some exhibited behavioral and cognitive issues earlier, and mood problems appeared 2.5 years earlier.

The findings of the study only further prove that legislators need to consider banning children from tackle football or enforcing harsher laws regarding how concussions are handled at practice and games for all ages.

The study comes from the VA Boston Healthcare System and Boston University School of Medicine – the same group that published their link between CTE and tackle football.

The study itself looked over 246 decreased football players, including 211 that were diagnosed after death with CTE. Out of the 211 diagnosed, 64 came from college, seven were high school football players, and two were semi-pro. An astounding 138 played professional football in the NFL.

What Is CTE and Why Is It Leading to Lawsuits?

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) was once believed to only exist in boxers. It was once referred to as dementia pugilistica but now is referred to as CTE.

CTE is progressive and degenerative. The disease affects the brain and stems from repeated concussions and traumatic brain injuries (TBI). Any athlete in a sport that involves contact is at risk. Military members can also be at risk for developing CTE. CTE takes several years to develop, but the result is tragic.

A person suffering from CTE has a brain that deteriorates over time. Eventually, the brain loses critical mass. Areas of the brain that are susceptible to atrophy are affected, and other areas become enlarged. CTE also creates excess tau protein, which is a stabilizer for cellular structure. Once tau protein becomes defective, it interferes with the brain’s neuron function.

What Are the Symptoms of CTE?

CTE symptoms vary, depending on the severity of the disease and the person. Most of these symptoms affect a person’s quality of life, and it often results in premature death.

Common symptoms include:

  • Memory loss
  • Impulse control issues
  • Erratic behavior
  • Impaired judgment
  • Aggression
  • Depression
  • Behavioral disturbances
  • Dementia
  • Balance issues

Sometimes, victims of CTE dismiss their symptoms as a normal sign of aging. Doctors may also misdiagnose CTE as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Some are diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, because the illness can mimic the same symptoms.

CTE cannot be diagnosed using traditional methods, which is why it is misdiagnosed frequently.

How Is CTE Diagnosed?

The first doctors to diagnose CTE in professional football players came from the Brain Injury Research Institute in 2002. Sadly, the condition can only be diagnosed in a post-mortem examination of the brain. Even then, the doctor must suspect CTE to conduct the test.

One UCLA study is currently looking into diagnosing CTE, and they are using test subjects to look for ways to identify excess tau protein. Using diagnostic tests while a patient is still alive, researchers believe that they can help protect football players and others with early signs of CTE.

Furthermore, early diagnoses may eventually lead to treatments for CTE. Right now, there are no treatments for it. Instead, the patient is given treatments like therapy for the symptoms that stem from the degenerative disorder.

Does CTE Always Lead to Death?

There is no cure for CTE, but the CTE Center at Boston University is doing clinical research and looking into ways to treat this condition.

The disease can shorten a person’s lifespan, but whether it contributes directly to their death depends on several factors. For example, in the case of Finnerty, CTE was not the cause of death but a contributor to his death. Some CTE victims may commit suicide, a known result of CTE. Other times, CTE may lead to other neurological issues that do cause premature death.

Does One Concussion Cause CTE?

No, a single concussion would not cause CTE. Instead, it requires repeated concussions to the brain.

Furthermore, a person may not know a concussion led to CTE. CTE symptoms take years – if not decades – to present themselves. Also, those suffering from CTE-type symptoms do not always have CTE.

CTE – Commonly Misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s Disease

CTE victims are commonly misdiagnosed as having Alzheimer’s Disease. While both share similarities, these diseases should not be confused for one another. CTE starts earlier than one should exhibit symptoms of Alzheimer’s – around 40 years. A person with Alzheimer’s should not show symptoms until their 60s. However, physicians often misdiagnose CTE victims as having early the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s starts with memory issues, while CTE starts with judgment, reasoning, and impulse control issues. Eventually, CTE turns into aggression and erratic behavior.

CTE Might Be More Widespread Than Initially Thought

The biggest issue with CTE is no one knows how prevalent it is or how many former players might have it. Scientists cannot say who will develop CTE, either. Numerous players had sustained concussions during their careers and did not develop CTE, while others did.

Boston University researchers did find that 96 percent of NFL players studied suffered from CTE. But that does not mean 96 percent of all professional and amateur players will develop CTE. Instead, the 96 percent stems solely from the brains donated for research that they were able to assess.

What Can Family Members Do for CTE Cases?

Unfortunately, players will not be diagnosed with CTE during their lifetime. Instead, it is diagnosed after death, which means family members are left dealing with the aftermath.

Loved ones do have options if they lose a family member to CTE.

When a loved one dies from CTE and they played football, served in the military, or engaged in another contact sport, you may be able to seek compensation for their injuries. Sports leagues for too long have not been held accountable for player health. They allow players to continue practices and games despite suffering from concussions or severe trauma.

As a result, players develop CTE and their family members have to endure the consequences as the disease progresses.

You may be entitled to compensation for your losses through a wrongful death lawsuit. A wrongful death lawsuit for CTE is complicated. Not only will you need an official diagnosis of CTE, but you will also need to argue that the league was at fault for your loved one’s injuries.

For help, contact a law firm ready to fight for your family.

Contact Berkowitz Hanna today to schedule a no-obligation case evaluation. Call or contact us online to get started.