Youth football is under the microscope (again), and this time, the ramifications may be more long-lasting and hard-hitting than the 2015 national position statement on behalf of pediatricians.
A U.S. District Court judge in California ruled last month that a lawsuit filed by two mothers against Pop Warner Little Scholars can continue. The case “could force the national Pop Warner program to pay up for not protecting players and change the game forever,” according to Newsweek.com.
But it's not just Pop Warner that stands to lose big if the two mothers come out victorious in the lawsuit. Rec programs, high school-based teams and more could see other parents cite the suit as a precedent and press their own cases.
The details of the lawsuit are chilling. Both women claim their sons, who played Pop Warner football in the 1990s and early 2000s, died as adults in their mid-20s — one in a motorcycle accident and one as the result of suicide — because they suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
If Pop Warner is found guilty, observers say the organization (already facing declining membership numbers) could be forced to raise its fees or face more lawsuits. Or both. The parents are represented by attorneys with experience battling the NFL over allegations of that league obscuring the risks of brain trauma.
CTE, diagnosed only after death, stems from repeated blows to the head and can lead to erratic and irresponsible to behavior. In a landmark finding last summer, Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist who is director of Boston University’s CTE Center, reported that CTE was detected in 110 of the 111 former NFL players’ brains donated to research, and former New England Patriots player Aaron Hernandez, a convicted murderer who killed himself in prison at age 27 in April, suffered from a severe case of CTE. Recent research also reveals that participation in youth football before age 12 increases the risk of behavioral problems and clinical depression.
Los Angeles-based Judge Philip Gutierrez agreed with the mothers, Kimberly Archie and Jo Cornell, that Pop Warner’s actions potentially resulted in head injuries that led to CTE and their son’s untimely deaths.
“Lawyers in the lawsuit against Pop Warner will argue whether a cumulative brain injury such as CTE is covered in the waiver signed by the players’ parents,” Forbes.com reports. “They are also likely to argue over the value of the existing medical science on CTE.
“Signing a waiver on registration day is unlikely to prevent most people from participating in a risky activity like playing football,” Forbes.com continues. “Nor is that waiver likely to hold up as the science strengthens around head injury. Pop Warner may not be found responsible in a courtroom. But, in the eyes of parents, this lawsuit may just be good enough to get some of them not to sign a permission form.”
There are signs coaches are already taking measures to lessen the risk of head injury to players. An article in the Richmond Times Dispatch noted the growing trend of teaching high school football players the rugby-style of tackling, which limits impacts to the head. In fact, some schools have instituted a tackling coach to concentrate soley on safer techniques. Ultimately, coaches in the area would like to see this technique taught starting around seventh grade. Still, football is a contact sport and the risk of head injury will never be completely gone, according to Timone Brown, assistant coach at Henrico High School.
"Concussions will not be out of the game of football until the game of football no longer exists," Brown said.