After getting a preliminary settlement in a class-action concussion lawsuit against the NCAA, Chicago attorney Joe Siprut is taking the fight over lax concussion management to the Illinois High School Association.
Siprut filed a class-action complaint in circuit court in Cook County, Ill., on Saturday, the same day the IHSA is hosting state championships. Daniel Bukal, who quarterbacked Notre Dame College Prep in Niles, Ill., from 1999 to 2003, is the named plaintiff on the complaint.
Combine a lack of resources at the high school level with the continued development of players’ brains in boys typically ages 14-19 and that creates a dangerous situation, Siprut said.
“I think if anything the issue at the high school level is more of a crisis than it is at the college level,” said Siprut, of Siprut PC. “I think the high school landscape is the next place this fight needs to be brought.”
In a statement released through the IHSA, the organization’s executive director, Marty Hickman, said: “The Illinois High School Association (IHSA) would like the spotlight to remain on the student-athletes, coaches and communities who have worked so hard to reach today’s state championship football games.
“We will review the contents of the lawsuit in the coming days and comment if and when it is appropriate. Student-athlete risk minimization, especially as it relates to concussion management in high school football, is and remains a top priority of the IHSA. We believe that the IHSA, in working with national partners like the NFHS, has and will continue to be a leader in this area.”
The IHSA, the complaint says, was derelict in its duties to protect athletes. In 2011, the state passed the “Protecting Our Student Athletes” Act, requiring education for athletes and their parents, mandating the removal of an athlete with concussion symptoms from a game or practice and requiring athletes be cleared by a health care professional before returning to competition. The IHSA also mandated this year that there be no tackling in summer practices and the state, with support from the IHSA, enacted a law that requires concussion education for all coaches.
The IHSA failed to properly address concussions before the 2011 act, the complaint argues, and still has fallen short since the law was passed. It points out that medical personnel are only required for games and not practices. While rules mandate players must be removed from a contest if they exhibit concussion symptoms, it does not address practices.
The IHSA also does not mandate baseline testing, concussion tracking or education for athletic trainers working with teams, the complaint says.
“The most important battle being waged on high school football fields across this State is not the competition to determine the winner and loser of a game, or even a State championship. It is the battle for the health and lives of the developing adolescents competing on those fields,” the complaint says. “It is now widely understood and acknowledged that concussions pose serious risks to participants in contact sports, and especially football. Among those risks are brain trauma and potentially debilitating long-term brain injuries. But if the problem of concussions in sports is a crisis, then it would be accurate to call the particular problem of concussions in high school sports an epidemic.”
In 2011, Siprut was the first to file a concussion lawsuit against the NCAA. That case, which was consolidated with many others in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, is currently awaiting approval of a preliminary settlement that the plaintiffs reached with the NCAA in July.
The lawsuit against the IHSA builds on that settlement. Like that case, this complaint seeks a change to policies and procedures as well as medical monitoring for members of the class, which it defines as current or former football players who competed for an IHSA member school from 2002 to present.
For Siprut, the case was a logical extension of the NCAA lawsuit or others filed against the NFL. Unless the sport is made safer, fewer parents will allow their sons to play it, Siprut argues.
“A lot of people are going to inevitably say what do you have against football? Why do you hate it? Why do you want to kill football?” he said. “It is not that. It is the exact opposite of that. Football will die in the next 20 years internally unless it becomes less dangerous.
“I don’t think this is an attack on football. I think this in harmony with the long-term health of the sport.”