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NCAA's insurer wants to exclude coverage for football injuries

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed an historic settlement between the National Football League and more than 20,000 former players who may develop serious illnesses due to repeated concussions during play. The $1 billion damage award will be available for players who develop ALS, Alzheimer's, dementia and other illnesses over the next 65 years.

It's a whopper of an award, but it was quite a case. The class of players had accused the NFL of hiding its knowledge that concussions and degenerative brain disease were linked. Now the news is out that dozens of former players had a disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, caused by repeated concussions and strongly connected to serious and deadly illnesses.

While football players assume the natural risks of playing a rough sport, the players didn't know that apparently mild head injuries like concussions could cause serious, long-term harm. If they didn't know about the risk, they couldn't have assumed that risk.

Does the same go for insurance companies? Great American Assurance Company, the insurer for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, thinks it should.

Or rather, the company argues that it never agreed to provide coverage for head injuries in football. In fact, the company says, it never agreed to provide coverage for football at all.

The company is more than willing to cover cross-country, tennis, track & field, swimming and other non-contact sports. It simply won't cover injuries from football.

It's easy to understand why it wouldn't want to. The NCAA didn't settle the same kind of class action as the NFL, but it did settle a concussion-related lawsuit last year for $75 million. The terms of the settlement require players to be pulled from games entirely after suffering a concussion, and that coaches and staff receive concussion education. It set up a $70 million fund to test existing and former college athletes' brains. It also requires a contribution of $5 million to concussion research.

Could college football players sue the NCAA for the long-term consequences of repeated concussions? There's nothing in principle that says they could not.

Can Great American Assurance get away with refusing to cover football injuries?

It depends on what a judge or jury determines to be the facts of the case. Great American argues that it negotiated an agreement with the Big Ten that excluded football, but that the written policy did not reflect that negotiation. However, the premium the Big Ten paid reflects football having been excluded.

"The Big Ten and Great American were mutually mistaken at the time the policy was issued," according to its lawsuit attempting to rescind the coverage. Its success will depend on whether that claim is found to be true.

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