On Thursday, July 7, 2016 a lawsuit was filed in the federal district court of Colorado on my behalf naming the NCAA, the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) and Brigham Young University (BYU) as having responsibility for traumatic brain injuries I sustained while playing football. The law group filing the complaint believed a pending settlement between the NCAA and a group of ex-players was inadequate in addressing the future health needs of those suffering from the disease as well as lacking the required incentives to make the game safer. In their mind, the settlement made the participating lawyers millions of dollars and did little more than allow the NCAA to sweep the issue under the carpet for the next 50 years. Nothing would change.
My choice to go forward with the lawsuit was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made for several reasons. Within hours of becoming public knowledge, I went from the BYU Hall of Famer, known by a few, to the ex-BYU football player, recognized by many as the guy who sued both his Alma-mater, and what is in the minds of millions, The Lord’s University. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, The Mormon Church, owns Brigham Young University. I had broken the unspoken code; I turned my back on my school, teammates and coaches. Not only had I sued BYU, but by association the coaches whom I cared for deeply. Angry, even hateful comments followed immediately and I couldn’t help but question my decision. My wife had just retired from teaching, and together, while not rich, we had enough. Money was not my incentive, but of course that is what many of the comments focused on. We had just been called to a genealogical mission for our church in Boston, a goal we had for many years, and in the back of my mind I even wondered if church authorities would have second thoughts about our serving. Had we suddenly become an unnecessary distraction?
What did I hope to accomplish by taking such drastic action? The NCAA was finalizing the settlement of an earlier class action lawsuit, supposedly addressing the very issue I was fighting for. My lawsuit was also filed as a class action, so I personally would likely see little financial benefit and it would be years in the courts. There seemed to be few positives and so many downsides, and on the surface, it just didn’t appear to be a reasonable course of action, especially in my current life circumstances. I was struggling emotionally just to keep my head above water. My anxieties and suspicions were increasing almost daily and were quickly becoming near-debilitating, creating problems both at work and home. I couldn’t say exactly what was going on, but I knew what I was experiencing was more than just memory issues, social anxiety, or depression. I wasn’t able to control or understand the paranoia and constant annoyance I felt inside of me or why it was building. Although this anger, the darkness within, had been coming on gradually and for some time, it was as though I hit a critical point, a breaking point. I finally understood what could cause so many ex-football players to take their own lives. The rage and tension were becoming unbearable. I just couldn’t make it stop.
So why, in the middle of this unrelenting struggle, would I go forward with the lawsuit? A neuropsychologist had diagnosed me with significant brain injury several years earlier. Perhaps the cognitive deficits he identified in executive function, the ability to plan and make wise decisions, was driving me to what would end up as nothing more than a fiery crash, accelerating my downward spiral and taking from me what little strength I may have had to fight these feelings.
As I was pondering this important decision, four very distinct events, all-occurring around the same time, pushed me foreword; convinced me I needed to do this regardless of the consequences. The first involved an article written about my emotional and cognitive struggles with the disease. It was written by Lee Benson and published in Utah’s The Deseret News in 2015, some 5 years following my induction into BYU’s Hall of Fame. After it appeared on the front page, I heard from many friends and ex-teammates. The comments were generally supportive, while several ex-teammates expressed concern about their own futures. They described experiencing similar symptoms but were hesitant to make such admissions public. However, I heard nothing from the athletic department at BYU. No message of support, no offer to help, nothing. I had recently been inducted to the Hall Of Fame, and by taking that action the administrators from the athletic department acknowledged me as someone who contributed to the success and popularity of BYU football. Why wouldn’t they say anything? What was holding them back from reaching out, from doing the right thing? I wasn’t bitter, just confused.
A second important consideration was the proposed concussion settlement I mentioned above. I felt it was a hypocritical, ineffective and biased settlement at best, paying millions of dollars to the lawyers’ and doing nothing for the players and families suffering from this disease. Research had been recently published out of the Boston University CTE research group identifying the presence of the disease in nearly 100% of a limited sample of brains donated by the families’ of ex-college and professional football players. The article created a great deal of interest as well as extensive news coverage, both positive and negative. Those questioning the researchers conclusions focused on the biased selection of the tested brains. Because the only brains studied were suspected of suffering from the disease, the deniers argued the study was invalid. Yet the proposed NCAA settlement was guilty of the exact same bias. The agreement called for on going testing and monitoring of athletes who volunteered to be tested. The testing was to be done at selected facilities around the country and the insurance companies would end up paying the major portion of the costs. The end results would only include players who suffered symptoms and lived close enough to a testing facility to make the effort to test. That’s a biased sample. But even more important, there were no provisions in the settlement for treatment or for financial support of those players who’s mental and cognitive failing would require constant care, an expense which would destroy lives and bankrupt families, simply because the individual had played football. It just didn’t make sense.
The third reason I was compelled to go forward was my personal battle with the disease. I went 20 plus years after playing without any outward indications that anything was wrong. I earned advanced degrees, raised a family, had a great relationship with my wife and had a promising career as a professor. Then things started happening, anxieties were building, temper issues were occurring more frequently, language difficulties began to surface and even spurts of paranoia began to affect my work and relationships. The symptoms had come on gradually and slowly progressed until they threatened everything I had worked for. How could I ignore my own experiences? What if the same problems were hurting ex-players and their families? The NFL and their supporters were adamant that there was no connection to brain disease and America’s sport, even as the reports of suicides and supporting and credible research mounted. As both a quasi-scientist (I have a PhD in physiology) and successful player I knew this disease was real and devastating. It was for me. I couldn’t just go away.
My final motive for proceeding, the ‘straw that broke the camels back,’ came after I spoke with one of the nations experts on traumatic brain injury. At the time, he was a professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Brigham Young University (BYU) where he had previously served as Chair of the Psychology Department. Along with writing several neuropsychological tests, he had authored and/or edited 9 textbooks, and published over 255 peer-reviewed articles. It could be said, he was an authority on brain injury. Because of his affiliation with BYU, I reached out to him for some answers. I sent an email and asked if he had worked with the BYU football team to address the concussion crisis. I needed to know if there had been any effort by the athletic department to address this issue. He indicated there had been no communication. That surprised me. Here is one of the preeminent authorities on brain injury and the long-term effects, working on the very same campus as the BYU athletic director, an ex-college and professional player himself, and the football coaching staff, all having played football, and they were not even aware of his existence. These are the very individuals given the moral and legal responsibility for creating and maintaining a safe environment for the athletes. How could that be? Following are portions of his responses to my question about working with the athletic department (I am sharing our conversation as he encouraged me to address the issue from the inside). I wrote an introductory email to which he responded with the following;
“Larry, I do not have any relationship with any professional football team. I am actually in the process of retiring from BYU and moving back to —. I am very interested in the problem of concussion and the article (About Utah: Former BYU linebacker Larry Carr going on the offense, Deseret News – published September, 2015), states that you are writing a book on this topic. I’m happy to discuss any of my research findings with you.” He continued, “Larry, I must be a bit reserved about what goes into an e-mail, but professional football including the NCAA and any university program that receives millions of dollars for the sport have not and currently are not truly interested in the science of concussion. The Department of Defense (DoD) is taking this very seriously and has projects from molecular neuroscience to humans and stay tuned to what is coming from DoD projects. There are 500,000 soldiers with mild TBI, so we have to come up with the appropriate tests and potential treatments. People like (you) working from within will undoubtedly make a difference.”
To me, his response was the smoking gun. His statement, “…and any university program who receives millions of dollars for the sport have not and currently are not truly interested in the science of concussion,” gave me no choice. The NFL continues to this day to dismiss the issues of head injury and the NCAA simply defers the responsibility to the individual member institutions. Millions of young athletes play the sport and tens of millions claim to be fans and watch it every week. I agreed to participate in the class action lawsuit for the transparent sharing of information and change; something had to be done!