A former high school quarterback followed in the steps of one-time pro and college players Saturday by suing a sports governing body — in this case the Illinois High School Association — saying it didn't do enough to protect him from concussions when he played and still doesn't do enough to protect current players.
The lawsuit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court on the same day Illinois wrapped up its last high school football championship games, is among the first times legal action has been taken for former high school football players as a whole against a group responsible for overseeing prep sports in a state.
The lead plaintiff in the suit is Daniel Bukal, a star quarterback at Notre Dame College Prep in Niles from 1999 to 2003. He received multiple concussions playing at the suburban Chicago school and, a decade on, still suffers frequent migraines and has experienced notable memory loss, according to the 51-page suit. Bukal didn't play beyond high school.
The IHSA did not have concussion protocols in place — putting Bukal and other high school players at risk — and those protocols remain deficient, the lawsuit alleges. It calls on the Bloomington-based IHSA to tighten its rules and regulations regarding head injuries at the 800 high schools it oversees. It does not seek specific monetary damages.
"In Illinois high school football, responsibility — and, ultimately, fault — for the historically poor management of concussions begins with the IHSA," Saturday's filing says. It calls high school concussions "an epidemic" and says the "most important battle being waged on high school football fields ... is the battle for the health and lives of" young players.
Bukal's attorney is Joseph Siprut, a Chicago-based attorney who filed a similar lawsuit against the NCAA in 2011 and who provided an advance copy of the new lawsuit to The Associated Press. The college sports governing body agreed this year to settle the NCAA lawsuit, including by committing $70 million for a medical monitoring program to test athletes for brain trauma and implementing tougher concussion protocols. The deal is still awaiting approval by a U.S. judge in Chicago.
The IHSA lawsuit seeks similar medical monitoring of Illinois high school football players, though it does not spell out details of such a program or how much it might cost. It contends that new regulations should include mandatory baseline testing of all players before each season starts to help determine the severity of any concussion during the season.
An IHSA spokesman had no immediate comment on the lawsuit. The IHSA has made some changes in recent years, but the filing argues it hasn't done enough.
The suit only targets the one Illinois association. High school football isn't overseen by a single national body equivalent to the NCAA, but rather by school boards, state law and 50 separate high school associations with varying degrees of control.
There is the National Federation of State High School Associations, or NFHS, which, like the NCAA, is based in Indianapolis. But its role is more advisory, says Siprut. Unlike the NCAA, the NFHS can't mandate that members adhere to its recommendations.
Around 140,000 out of nearly 8 million high school athletes have concussions every year, most of them football players, according to the NFHS. Some estimates put the number of high school sports concussions much higher, in part because many go unreported.
Eight high school students died directly from playing football in 2013 — six from head and two from neck injuries — while there were none last year in college, professional or semi-professional football, according to a 2014 report by National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research.
Speaking Saturday after the filing, Siprut said the legal action wasn't intended to undermine high school football or America's most popular sport as a whole.
"This is not a threat or attack on football," he said. "Football is in danger in Illinois and other states — especially at the high school level — because of how dangerous it is. If football does not change internally, it will die. The talent well will dry up as parents keep kids out of the sport — and that's how a sport dies."