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Judge nixes first class-action lawsuit over high school concussions

CHICAGO -- An Illinois judge has dismissed the nation's first class-action concussions lawsuit against a prep sports governing body, saying the Illinois High School Association has taken steps to make football safer and that imposing costly requirements could force some schools to drop the sport.

Pediatricians tackle growing problem of fatal footbal injuries 02:00

The ruling by Cook County Judge Leroy Martin Jr., issued Tuesday, rejects a case brought on behalf of players who sought court supervision over how high schools manage football head injuries. The suit also calls for the IHSA, which oversees around 50,000 football players at hundreds of Illinois high schools each year, to pay for medical testing of former high school players extending back to 2002.

IHSA Executive Director Marty Hickman praised the decision Wednesday, saying the organization has worked to minimize the risk of injury in all sports.

"We maintain that the way to make high school football in Illinois safer is not through divisive lawsuits, but rather through collaborative efforts," Hickman said. "We have followed this practice for years, and it's obvious the Court agrees with our approach."

College and professional football have faced a barrage of class-action lawsuits in recent years. But the case against the IHSA is the first of its kind against a high school football governing body. Each of the 50 states has its own governing body.

In its motion, the IHSA said it can't be compared to the cash-rich NCAA and NFL. The IHSA has $10 million in yearly revenue to pay for more than 40 sports and activities statewide, and court-imposed mandates could be financially crippling, it argues.

IHSA lawyer Thomas Heiden said during oral arguments in August that the Illinois group and state legislators are already dealing with the head injury issue. He and Hickman also have argued that the relief plaintiffs are seeking would make football prohibitively expensive for poorer schools, especially Chicago's public high schools, and lead to "haves and have nots" in the sport.

Plaintiffs attorney Joe Siprut countered that IHSA was employing "shock and awe" to raise the false specter of a threat to football itself, and that improving safety should help football survive, not lead to its demise. Siprut argued the sport is already in jeopardy because parents fearful of concussions are refusing to let their kids play, potentially drying up the talent pool.

He didn't immediately respond Wednesday to phone messages seeking comment.

In his written decision, Martin said it's clear the IHSA has worked to protect student athletes, and that the association doesn't have a direct relationship to football or the plaintiffs. He also noted the potential impact of the lawsuit.

"Imposing broader liability on this defendant would certainly change the sport of football and potentially harm it or cause it to be abandoned," Martin wrote.

The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit is Alex Pierscionek, a South Elgin High School lineman from 2010 to 2014. He says he still suffers memory loss from concussions he received at the suburban Chicago school, one of which led to him being airlifted to an area hospital.

High school football enrollment has dropped by roughly 25,000 players nationwide as high school player football deaths and injuries are publicized.

This month, Chicago high school senior Andre Smith became the seventh high school football player to die this year after junior Cam'ron Matthews, a high school player in Texas, collapsed on the field and died.

A high school football player from Tennessee was also recently put into a medically-induced coma.

Shortly after Smith's death, The American Academy of Pediatrics issued new guidelines aimed at improving the safety of youth football, played by more than a million American kids.

The recommendations include zero tolerance for illegal head-first hits; having athletic trainers on sidelines of games; and offering non-tackle football games as an alternative, reports CBS News correspondent Dean Reynolds.

"There's too many head-to-head hits and leading with the head, known as spearing -- that's been against the rules since 1976 and for some reason referees and coaches have gotten away from enforcing that rule," said Dr. Greg Landry, co-author of the recommendations and member of AAP Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness.

Based on a review of scientific research on the relationship between tackling and football-related injuries, the AAP policy recommendation said head and neck injuries are usually more severe than injuries to the legs and back, and often a result of illegal tackling techniques.

The recommendations include zero tolerance for illegal head-first hits; having athletic trainers on sidelines of games; and offering non-tackle football games as an alternative, reports CBS News correspondent Dean Reynolds.

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