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Judge Approves $70M NCAA Concussion Deal

CHICAGO (CN) - A settlement with student athletes approved by a federal judge Tuesday aims to revamp the way college-sports programs handle player concussions.

U.S. District Judge John Lee in Chicago was first presented with the settlement in 2014 after more than a year of negotiations.

Under terms of the agreement, the National Collegiate Athletic Association will establish a new protocol to handle concussed athletes and to monitor the health of those who might have suffered concussions while playing a wide variety of college sports.

The NCAA will fund a $70 million program to test current and former athletes for brain injuries for the next 50 years, and players will not be allowed to return to action the same day they receive a concussion.

In addition, everyone on the sidelines, including players, coaches and trainers, will be subject to mandatory concussion education, and doctors trained in concussion diagnosis will have to be present for all games played.

The proposed settlement also requires the NCAA to contribute $5 million toward concussion-related research.

The settlement covers men and woman who participate in football, soccer, basketball, ice hockey, wrestling, field hockey and lacrosse.

It does not set aside a lump sum to pay damages to athletes who have already suffered debilitating head injuries.

Lee modified the agreement to adopt one point made by objectors, and he preserved a right for players to sue a single school and the NCAA as a class.

The NCAA said in a statement it is reviewing Lee's modifications.

Lead counsel for plaintiffs Steve Berman told The New York Times: "After all the wait, we've basically got 96 percent of what we expected to get. It's understandable, with a settlement this big, there could be some tweaking, but we're happy with the result."

The settlement drew objections from two members of the class: former San Diego State football player Anthony Nichols and Adrian Arrington, a former linebacker for Eastern Illinois University.

They claimed there is a conflict of interest between class members who have not yet been diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease, and those who have, because the former will receive no benefit from the medical-monitoring program.

Lee disagreed, finding that "even class members with already diagnosed conditions will likely benefit from the Medical Monitoring Program by enabling them to determine whether their condition is progressively declining and/or whether they are experiencing symptoms related to a different, yet-undiagnosed condition."

Nichols also objected to the total release of classwide claims.

Lee distinguished this case from a settlement the National Football League reached with pro that will provide up to $5 million per player if approved.

The NFL has 20,000 members all subject to the league's rules for dealing with head injuries. The NCAA, on the other hand, has approximately 4.4 million members in 43 different men and women's sports, subject to rules that vary school to school, coach to coach, and even year to year, all else equal.

Given the wide discrepancy in how players are treated for head injuries across the NCAA, "the court finds it highly unlikely that plaintiffs would be able to certify a nationwide personal injury class under Rule 23(b)(3) and concludes that this procedural right has little, if any, value," Lee wrote.

The judge also found, however, that a class of student-athletes who played a single sport, on the same team, at the same time, subject to the same concussion management protocols would not face the same hurdles.

"As a result, the court cannot find that the release of personal injury claims on a class-wide basis is reasonable as it is currently set forth in the Amended Settlement Agreement," Lee's 53-page decision states. To the extent that the settling plaintiffs and the NCAA seek approval of such a provision, the scope of the release of class-wide personal injury claims must be limited to those instances where the plaintiffs or claimants seek a nationwide class or where the proposed class is comprised of student-athletes from more than one NCAA-affiliated school."

This change, if accepted by the NCAA, will expose the association to school-based class actions for years to come.

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