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HCS Op-Ed: 44 Years Later, Former Longhorn Julius Whittier, once again, Fights for Rights

Fifteen years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation unconstitutional, the University of Texas still did not have a single black football player. Fifteen years. This was a precedent that society knew was morally wrong, but accepted anyway, because challenging the status quo wasn’t a priority.  The 1969 Texas Longhorns went undefeated and won a national championship – a team comprised of solely white athletes. Sure, let’s fix it later, but not yet. No one was in any rush to shake the UT boat.

That next season, Julius Whittier became the first African-American to play for UT, and sunk the outdated boat altogether. He challenged a system that had been around for 77 years, and paved the way for a long line of black athletes, team leaders, and Heisman winners.

In retrospect, we see that our country’s history of racial discrimination can be defined as many things: An obsolete mindset that was engrained as the norm.  Separate and not equal. An exploitation of labor disguised as a fortunate opportunity; and a societal procrastination.

Fast-forward 44 years. Rather than being satisfied with paving history once, the 64-year-old Whittier is doing it all over again. But, in replace of racial discrimination, he’s on to the next warped system – the NCAA.

Whittier filed a class-action lawsuit against the NCAA on Monday, seeking up to $50 million in damages for traumatic head injuries that happened while playing college football. The court document says he has since developed neurodegenerative disorders including Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), and early onset Alzheimer’s disease. His suit will represent any former NCAA football player from 1960 – 2014 who didn’t go on to play in the NFL, but did suffer brain damage.

In sum, the lawsuit claims that the NCAA knew about the serious risks and dangers of head injuries resulting from football. But, they did not educate current or former athletes on the matter, made no changes to the necessary management or treatment of such injuries, and ultimately disregarded their responsibility to protect the safety of players.

To understand the basis of Whittier’s argument, we must first look at how the NCAA has gotten to this point – specifically, why an association that was explicitly created to make football safer is still being sued for mishandling injuries 108 years later. Recently, the NCAA’s website stated it was founded to “protect young people from the dangerous and exploitive athletics practices of the time.” But, amidst multiple injury lawsuits, they have unsurprisingly removed the page.

Whittier’s case is in response to a settlement between the NCAA and other former players who sued for the exact same reason in July. The settlement agreed to establish guidelines for how concussions are managed, and agreed to pay for medical monitoring for current players. That all sounds great, until you take a closer look.

First, these new procedures they published are not mandatory for schools at all – they are merely suggestions. No institution can be punished for not adopting them, or for that matter, not having any concussion procedures at all. This should be expected from the NCAA, because if they made them required (like their strictly enforced amateurism rules are) then someone might hold them accountable. God forbid that ever happened!

Also, while they did set aside money to implement medical monitoring, this doesn’t cover half of what brain-damaged players need. This “medical monitoring” means athletes have to first self-report their symptoms to a questionnaire, and then if a committee decides you need it, will pay for the test that could diagnose brain damage. But, lets say you’re a player that takes the test and they tell you there are serious medical issues in your brain – that’s where the NCAA backs out. Oh, you need treatment for that diagnosis? Sorry, you’re on your own. And don’t even think about asking for financial compensation for brain damage that can affect your ability to hold a job or support your family.

Lastly, not one of these “improvements” includes former players, only the current ones. The players who received the least amount, if any, of concussion education, played at a time when there was hardly any long-term data on concussions. The players that are now experiencing the harshest brain damage effects, did not get anything out of this settlement.

Recently, the NCAA’s biggest justification has been their partnership with the Department of Defense to launch a $30 million research initiative on concussions. This will provide comprehensive and essential data that will absolutely be beneficial to have. But, research is not the problem here – the NCAA has conducted extensive concussion research many times before this, yet continuously proceeded without change. As cited in the court document, in 1982 they created an Injury Surveillance System to collect data on the injuries happening in college athletics. They concluded that concussions were the most prevalent head injury, but didn’t add any educational training or medical monitoring, or even attempt to contact former players about the new findings. Then in 1996, when NCAA research found that football helmets did not prevent concussions – no changes were made. In 2004 the NCAA’s Injury Surveillance System reported a higher than normal amount of concussions, but once again, no response or action was taken. The NCAA is very good at conducting plenty of research; they just don’t do anything about it.

Whittier’s case argues that it was the NCAA’s duty to protect player’s health and safety – their original reason for being created – but the association does not agree. Put best in the lawsuit, “the NCAA has ignored this duty and profited immensely from its inaction and denial, all to the detriment of the players.”

Julius Whittier has the power, once again, to fix a wrong in society. This is just the beginning of exposing the NCAA’s history as many things: An obsolete mindset that was engrained as the norm.  Separate and not equal. An exploitation of labor disguised as a fortunate opportunity. And a societal procrastination.

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