Pitt, NCAA knew about dangers of football concussions, lawsuits claim 


February 15, 2021

Two former University of Pittsburgh football players filed separate federal lawsuits against the university and the NCAA, as well as the Big East and Atlantic Coast conferences, alleging the organizations were aware of the potential health ramifications caused by concussions and repeated blows to the head but never took action to protect players.

The lawsuits seek class-action status for any student-athlete who played varsity football from 1952 through the present who “suffered concussive and sub-concussive head injuries while participating in football games and practices at Pitt.”

They include claims for negligence, fraudulent concealment, breach of contract and unjust enrichment.

Messages left with Pitt and the NCAA were not immediately returned.

Joseph DelSardo, a former wide receiver, who played at Pitt from 2003-06, and Craig Bokor, a defensive lineman who played from 2005-09, each filed a complaint Friday in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh.

The lawsuits are both filed by the same New York law firm, Hagens Berman, which was lead counsel in multi-district, concussion litigation against the NCAA over the last several years.

In 2019, the firm reached a settlement in a case filed in 2011 that created a 50-year, $70 million medical-monitoring program for student-athletes to screen for and track head injuries and concussions. It also created a $5 million fund for concussion research.

Messages left with the firm were not returned on Monday.

The two plaintiffs allege in their complaints that the NCAA engaged in “systemic exploitation,” and that it profited from unpaid, amateur labor.

“The NCAA was created to protect the students that participate in various college sports, including football. Despite its alleged purpose, the NCAA has failed to take reasonable actions to protect players from the chronic risks created by such injuries and fraudulently concealed those risks from players,” the lawsuits said.

They accuse the NCAA of concealing the impact playing football has, including the increased risk of brain injuries, memory loss, dementia and depression. It also alleges the NCAA knew for nearly four decades about the dangers that come from concussions.

“Because the defendants cared more about profits and the outcome of games over the health of its players, plaintiff and the class he seeks to represent are going to suffer neurological injuries for the rest of their lives,” the lawsuits said.

The lawsuits also allege that each member institution of the NCAA and each conference is responsible to protect the health and safety of its student-athletes, but that “schools like the University of Pittsburgh do not take player health seriously.”

Included in the allegations, the plaintiffs allege that the NCAA didn’t adopt concussion management protocols — including that a student removed from a game or practice for a head injury shall not return for the remainder of that day — until 2010.

The lawsuit alleges the NCAA, conferences and member schools have not adhered to that policy, and that Pitt breached its duty by encouraging injured players to return to the field of play.

DelSardo, a standout at Seton LaSalle High School, walked on at Pitt. He has been open about his battle with addiction, which started with pills in high school to overcome an injury and evolved to heroin and cocaine. DelSardo speaks often about his experiences and hosts a podcast with brother Ralph called “The Brudders in the ‘Burgh.’’

In his lawsuit, DelSardo said he “received head-to-head contact,” which is banned by the NCAA, in nearly every full practice and game during his three years at Pitt. He alleges that he suffered undiagnosed concussions and sub-concussive hits numerous times in practice, resulting in dizziness, seeing stars and memory loss.

“As a result of the culture at the defendant’s institution, DelSardo felt that the school’s prioritization of a ‘win-first’ mentality over player health meant that he needed to keep playing despite his obvious neurological impairment,” his lawsuit said. “Rather than remove a player who told his coach that he had sustained memory loss, Pittsburgh pressured DelSardo back onto the field of play.”

The suit alleges there were no medical tests done related to his loss of memory, and he was never asked about it again.

DelSardo claims that he now suffers from anxiety, migraines, memory loss and “other debilitating injuries.”

The other lead plaintiff, Bokor, was a defensive lineman who previously starred at Hopewell.

He claims that he experienced memory loss during practice but said in the lawsuit, “(I was) nervous to bring it up again because I didn’t want to hurt myself in the line (so) I kept quiet.”

He, too, claims to suffer anxiety, migraines, memory loss and other debilitating injuries.

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