Former Texas Christian University football wide receiver Kolby Listenbee was considered one of the greatest NFL prospects to come out of the school. But according to him, a devastating injury in 2015 was the beginning of the end of his career hopes. After falling during a touchdown catch against Southern Methodist University, Listenbee had to be removed from the game. Doctors said he’d experienced a serious pelvic injury, one that would take anywhere from 8 to 12 weeks to recover. The TCU lawsuit filed by the athlete in January, and a Real Sports interview in April, allege that he was not given that time. Additionally, the suit alleges, Listenbee was threatened by coach Gary Patterson and coerced to play through the pain.
In recent years, professional and college-level football has seen many athletes come forward with injury lawsuits. In particular, the recent concussion settlement has forced the NFL to set aside nearly $1 billion to pay off players affected by CTE.
Listenbee’s TCU lawsuit comes at a particularly sensitive time for college sports. The Larry Nassar scandal has put a damper on the Michigan State sports program, as investigators learn more about who was connected to the disgraced doctor.
One concern is the NCAA itself. With the Nassar scandal fresh in the public eye, it may consider aggressive action against TCU to protect students. Coach Patterson’s conduct, if Listenbee’s allegations are true, could damage the university’s otherwise stellar football program beyond repair in the near future.
What Listenbee endured for his shot at the NFL
The TCU lawsuit claims that Listenbee had essentially been forced to play despite his protests. Within a month of being injured in the game against SMU, team doctors cleared him to play. He would struggle through his senior season, in such pain that regular corticosteroid injections were not enough to numb the discomfort.
Listenbee claims that Coach Patterson would routinely mock him during practice, saying that the injury was “faked”. Patterson continually threatened the athlete’s spot on the TCU team, and before an October 2015 game, even threatened Listenbee with expulsion from the school.
In addition to threatening Listenbee’s athletic and educational standing, Patterson and his staff also threatened to steer NFL scouts away from him. They would claim that he was “too soft” for the NFL, and these threats were a driving factor for keeping the injured player on the field.
His senior season would be disappointing compared to his junior year, but not so disappointing that Buffalo Bills would not draft him in 2016. Listenbee’s performance at the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine was still enough to turn heads; but his injuries, and surgeries intended to correct them, kept him off the field for the Bills until he was cut loose in 2017. Since then, Listenbee has bounced between NFL teams as a practice squad member, and as of May 2018 has not played a single down in professional football.
The accusations in Listenbee’s TCU lawsuit are not unique to the school
Current and former college athletes around the country have been filing lawsuits against universities in recent years. These cases tend to be focused on concussions, the risks of, or the resulting brain damage years down the line.
A common thread in professional sports is the ‘drive’ to push through injuries. However, willpower is not always enough to keep a battered player on their feet. In cases like Listenbee’s, his injury was severe enough that he required regular corticosteroid injections to keep the pain at bay.
These injections are discouraged by the NCAA’s own Sports Medicine Handbook. There are physical and psychological concerns at play. This treatment may enable young athletes to play through the pain like their coaches demand, but risk aggravating existing injuries. Additionally, excess corticosteroid use could cause osteoporosis.
Listenbee’s hip injury could have been exacerbated by excess corticosteroid injections and premature physical exertion. Ultimately, metal plate and pins were surgically implanted to hold his pelvic bones together.
Listenbee’s TCU lawsuit challenges one of the most powerful college football programs in the country
TCU fields a winning football team that continues to impress NFL scouts with every season. Gary Patterson’s 17 years at the school has resulted in 45 students being sent to the NFL. Twenty of the league’s 32 teams have a TCU player somewhere on the roster. The 2017 class alone has 14 players currently signed on with the league.
The coaching staff enjoys excellent pay under Gary Patterson. The medical staff is advertised as the best in college football. According to Patterson himself, many current and former TCU players have insist they are willing to testify in his defense. In the months since filing his lawsuit, Listenbee’s claims have been picked apart and dismissed by TCU.
The interview on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel is one more chance to get his grievances more national attention. TCU has tried to settle the case outside of court, but Listenbee rejected their offer. He is suing TCU for $1 million, a price tag that falls short of high-end professional NFL contract.
However, if this lawsuit succeeds, it could also bring the university significant NCAA penalties exceeding that amount. During the Penn State scandal, the NCAA fined the university $60 million, and instituted many sanctions.
While most sanctions were ultimately rescinded or reduced, a similar response would be a devastating blow to TCU reputation. It would also represent the beginnings of compensation for athletes who have endured circumstances similar to Listenbee’s.