A potentially groundbreaking civil case currently is being heard in Washington County Court.
In one corner is 38-year-old Matthew Onyshko, who suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and blames his illness on injuries suffered while playing football at California University of Pennsylvania.
On the other side is the NCAA, the governing body of collegiate athletics, which is accused of failing to warn Onyshko of the dangers of repeated blows to the head and spine.
Onyshko estimates he suffered at least 20 concussions – which caused him to black out – during his days as a walk-on at Cal U. from 1999 to 2003. He later became a Pittsburgh firefighter, but in early 2008, he detected a weakness in one of his hands. Ultimately, he was diagnosed with ALS and now must use a wheelchair. Onyshko didn’t link his illness with his football-playing days until a few years later, when he saw a story about former New Orleans Saints safety Steve Gleason, who also suffers from the disease.
Onyshko’s case is essentially one alleging negligence, or worse, deliberate withholding of critical information about the health hazards of playing football.
Over the years, the National Football League fought tooth and nail to deny a link between the game and ailments such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease that’s been found to be common among former NFL players. Eventually the mountains of evidence that accumulated forced the NFL to change its approach, and efforts have been made to improve the safety of those playing the game.
Onyshko’s legal team says that wasn’t the case when he was playing.
“What happened in this case should have never happened,” attorney Eugene Egdorf of Houston, Texas, told jurors in his opening statement. “If the NCAA shared what it knew with Matt Onyshko, we would not be here today.”
The NCAA, of course, believes Onyshko’s lawyers are barking up the wrong tree.
NCAA attorney Arthur W. Hankin of Philadelphia said there’s no evidence whatsoever that Onyshko’s condition arose from anything that happened to him on a football field, and he called the NCAA “a non-medical institution.”
“They have tried to make it out as an organization that doesn’t care,” said Hankin. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Hankin pointed out that if Onyshko did suffer a concussion – and the defense is not disputing that he might have – he was never formally diagnosed as such.
“He never went to a doctor, trainer or nurse,” Hankin said. “They want you to assume that merely because Matt Onyshko played football that he had a concussion.”
And that, in a nutshell, is the high bar that Onyshko’s lawyers have to hurdle. They really can’t tie Onyshko’s condition to his football injuries with any degree of certainty.
There are plenty of people who never played football yet develop ALS. And there are plenty of people who play football for many years yet never suffer from debilitating brain or nervous system disorders.
We can be certain of a couple things. One, if Onyshko somehow prevails in the case, it will bring a flood of similar actions from former football players who have developed serious medical problems in the aftermath of their playing days. And also, no matter how much better helmets are made, or how the rules are changed, football will remain a game that is dangerous to play. Each player, or a prospective player’s parents, must decide if the reward is worth the very real risks.