Bernard Hicks’ Lawsuit Highlights Ongoing Issue in Football


The University of California, Berkeley is being sued by former football player Bernard Hicks. In the suit, Hicks accuses the school of medical malpractice, claiming the school failed “to take measures to prevent concussions and fail[ed] to warn players about the long-term consequences of head injuries.

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Hicks played safety for the Golden Bears from 2004 to 2008, and was a big-hitter in the defensive backfield. In 32 games, Hicks totaled four interceptions and four tackles for negative yardage.

While with the Bears’ football program, Hicks says he suffered several concussions, and as a result, now has permanent neurological injuries. Those injuries have caused him depression, suicidal thoughts, vision problems, and memory loss.

Hicks’ attorney, Matthew Whibley, says that the “university is the players’ caretaker… we think it would be fair for them to at least inform the players what they’re getting themselves into.” He would also cite the light being shed on the concussion issues, but stated players are “less likely to believe those third-party statements than if they heard it from their own team doctors and coaches”.

This is not the first lawsuit stemming from neurological issues caused by concussions filed by a former player, and it almost certainly will not be the last. Football is a dangerous sport, and one need not watch more than a few minutes of the action to understand that. When 22 large men, ranging from 200 to 300-plus pounds, share a field and are tasked with the job of hitting other large men as hard as they can, injuries, namely head injuries, will occur.

Those head injuries take an awful toll on the recipients. The NFL has seen more than a fair share of lawsuits from former players regarding the head injuries suffered. Some of the NFL’s all-time greats have been involved in those cases, including (but certainly not limited to) Dan Marino, Art Monk, Tony Dorsett, and Jim McMahon.

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It goes deeper than lawsuits. In May of 2012, former NFL linebacker (and newly-enshrined Hall of Famer) Junior Seau committed suicide, and his family has remained adamant that head injuries played a vital role in his untimely death. In December of 2012, Kansas City Chiefs’ linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend and, later, himself. He was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is caused by consistent head trauma. Those are just the two most high-profile cases.

The NFL has made changes in an effort to alleviate the concussion epidemic. They’ve cut way down on the amount of contact allowed between players during practice in the week leading up to games, and have completely eliminated two-a-days practices during training camp as part of their new collective bargaining agreement. The League has also set harsher penalties for excessive force and tackles up near a player’s head, as a deterrent to players who have been known to do such things.

To some extent, that has worked. During the 2012 season, which includes preseason and regular season games, as well as practices, there were 261 concussions diagnosed by the NFL. The next year, that number tumbled down to 229. It fell even further last season, as there were 202 diagnosed concussions (statistics from CNN). That’s a 22 percent decrease over three seasons. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but those numbers are a positive indicator that the NFL’s changes have had some effect.

Those numbers should be encouraging to other levels of football. Other governing bodies, most notably the NCAA, could take a page from their book if they are serious about making the game safer for their players.

It would be impossible to prevent concussions completely. Accidents will happen, no matter how safe the game is made. Players will get hit and bang their heads on the turf, or unintentionally smack helmets together. Things like that can’t be stopped. But changes can be made for the better. The NFL has proven so.

Hicks is just the latest in a long line of players who have come forward with permanent neurological damage as a result of their years on the football field. He won’t be last in that line for long. The line already stretches around the block, and it figures to lap itself soon. This lawsuit could have a large impact on, not only the Cal Bears’ program, but others as well. It could be the first stepping stone towards the NCAA making big time changes, just the way the NFL had to do.

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