August 17, 2019

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Opinion

Brain damage the cost of justice in Canadian football, it would seem

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 5/10/2017 (680 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In the end, Kevin Kwasny never got his day in court.

Because in the end, Bishop’s University finally did for Kwasny what it should have done from the start; it caved and agreed to take care of a man who suffered irreversible brain damage while playing university football for the Sherbrooke, Que., school back in September 2011.

After shamelessly prolonging pre-trial proceedings for years, forcing a change of venue from Manitoba to Montreal and threatening to drag a mentally disabled man into court, Bishop’s finally settled with the Winnipeg family Thursday.

"It's a huge relief for everybody involved," the Kwasnys' lawyer, Winnipeg's Jamie Kagan, told me Thursday morning.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 5/10/2017 (680 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In the end, Kevin Kwasny never got his day in court.

Because in the end, Bishop’s University finally did for Kwasny what it should have done from the start; it caved and agreed to take care of a man who suffered irreversible brain damage while playing university football for the Sherbrooke, Que., school back in September 2011.

The Canadian Press Images / Francis Vachon</p><p>CIS Footlball profile photo on Bishop's Gaiters Kevin Kwasny October 12, 2010 at the Stade du PEPS stadium in Quebec city. </p>

The Canadian Press Images / Francis Vachon

CIS Footlball profile photo on Bishop's Gaiters Kevin Kwasny October 12, 2010 at the Stade du PEPS stadium in Quebec city.

After shamelessly prolonging pre-trial proceedings for years, forcing a change of venue from Manitoba to Montreal and threatening to drag a mentally disabled man into court, Bishop’s finally settled with the Winnipeg family Thursday.

"It's a huge relief for everybody involved," the Kwasnys' lawyer, Winnipeg's Jamie Kagan, told me Thursday morning.

So, what? They saw the light?

Hardly. No, the university agreed to settle just hours before a three-week trial was scheduled to begin in a Montreal courtroom Thursday morning. Kagan planned to call a witness to the stand who would testify that after leaving a game on Sept. 10, 2011 with a concussion, Kwasny was ordered by a Bishop's coach to "get back in the game, you f—-ing pussy."

Kwasny did what he was told. A few plays later, he suffered another blow to the head. By halftime, he’d collapsed and was rushed to hospital in critical condition.

He spent the next eight months in a coma.

A bright kid and powerful defensive lineman who played ball at St. Paul’s High School, Kwasny, 28, requires personal care to this day at his parents' Winnipeg home.

FACEBOOK PHOTO</p><p>Kevin Kwasny</p>

FACEBOOK PHOTO

Kevin Kwasny

Things have slowly improved over the years, but his life will never be the same. He lost the use of most of the right side of his body and needs assistance to walk. And things still get very fuzzy.

"At times, he has a university vocabulary," says Kagan, "and then he leaves his parents' house and gets lost.... His parents still have to help him cut his meat.

"You can’t imagine how hard it is to sit and listen to his mom describe what they go through every day."

Terms of Thursday’s settlement weren’t released, but you can bet it was substantial — the family was seeking $13.7 million in damages and Kagan was going to present evidence at trial that in ordering Kwasny to return to the game, the Bishop's coaching staff wilfully ignored concussion protocols introduced in Canadian university football in 2010.

"This is a textbook case," Kagan told me earlier this week. "The world of sports needs to change and recognize these men aren’t gladiators."

The good news, of course, is the world of sports has already changed, in real and substantial ways.

Every contact sport at every level, from little league in baseball to the NFL in football, now has strict rules about how to handle possible concussions. There are quiet rooms and tests and strict benchmarks that must be followed before a player can return to play.

Decisions once made by untrained coaches are now in the hands of a team’s medical staff and — in the NHL — in the hands of the league, which have observers at every game with the power to order a team to remove a player from the ice if they think he’s sustained a head injury.

Now, I guess I might be naive, but when you look at all that, I like to think that the days of a football coach demanding a concussed player get back into a game — while simultaneously also taunting him about his manhood — is finally a thing of the past.

Too late for Kevin Kwasny, unfortunately.

Kagan told me he was going to present medical evidence in court showing that the first blow to the head Kwasny received was a simple concussion and that it was the cumulative effect of the second head impact so soon afterward that caused his catastrophic injuries.

Put another way, Kwasny would be fine today if he’d just been allowed to sit out the rest of the game, take things slow for a bit and then return to play on a carefully managed schedule — the way all concussed players do now.

So, yeah, we've changed the way we manage concussions. But what hasn’t changed — at least it hasn’t changed in the three-down version of football — is the way we continue to turn our backs on former players who suffer the effects of football-related injuries long after they leave the field.

I’ve written extensively in this space about long-forgotten former players suffering the debilitating effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. (Written too much on the topic, in fact, for some readers: "When are you just going to let it go?" one reader asked me last weekend after I wrote another CTE-related column. When we stop turning healthy men into vegetables for our personal entertainment, that’s when.)

And then there was the news this week that former Blue Bombers great Jonathan Hefney has had to set up a GoFundMe account to raise money for surgery to repair damage suffered in a career-ending 2015 helmet-to-helmet collision.

Hefney fractured three vertebrae and sustained nerve damage that has rendered his right arm so weak that he still can’t use it to feed himself.

So what is the league doing for Hefney, you might ask? Not a thing. CFL players are on their own, medically, 12 months after an injury occurs, and worker's compensation doesn’t cover players either, for injuries sustained while they were on the job.

All of which is to say there is very much a direct line to be drawn between the way Bishop’s University treated Kwasny for the last six years and the way Hefney is still being treated.

The stadium lights are turned off, the cheering stops and all of us move on to other things. It’s the players who are left to pick up the pieces.

Kwasny and his family finally got they need Thursday. But it came only after a bitter fight and a lot of foot-dragging. The extraordinary lengths his family had to go to force the issue shows how far we still have to go to get to a place where we take proper care of the athletes who once entertained us.

Let it go? Not any time soon, it would seem.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter (retired)

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

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