The NFL, college and high school football have begun to confront the problem of brain trauma. The NFL settled a massive lawsuit arising out of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). The settlement calls for a wide range of reforms and payments to NFL victims of CTE. In the meantime, the NCAA and high school football officials have instituted new rules and procedures to protect players from brain trauma. Anyone who has watched or attended a college football game has sat through video reviews of potential “targeting” penalties—prohibited helmet to helmet “hits”.
A recent lawsuit filed in federal court in California alleges that the same issue exists in Pop Warner—the venerable little league of football. Though youth football participation is on the downswing, Pop Warner remains popular, and the fact is, young boys play in Pop Warner leagues with the hopes of progressing to high school football and beyond. Pop Warner has faced several lawsuits but has managed to stay out of the courtroom with confidential, pretrial settlements.
However, the federal case in California is headed to trial on January 14, 2020 and the plaintiffs in that case have vowed to force Pop Warner too see the inside of a courtroom. The suit was brought by two mothers who allege their sons' deaths as young adults resulted from CTE that first began when the boys played Pop Warner as kids. One young man died in a motorcycle accident and the other by suicide. Autopsies confirmed the presence of CTE in both individuals. Plaintiffs will need to link up these deaths with the brain damage and also show the brain damage is attributable to negligence by Pop Warner.
Pop Warner has defended the case aggressively. While it has questioned the science behind CTE as well as the circumstances of each of the deaths, it has also asserted in its court papers that head trauma is an inherent risk of football and further that Pop Warner has no duty to minimize the risk of brain injury. These statements contradict the warm and fuzzy statements by Pop Warner officials that safety is always the first priority of the organization.
This suit is not the only one against football-related organizations. The NCAA has settled a similar case and helmet maker Riddell currently faces a wrongful death claim.
So, are your kids safe playing football? Despite efforts to modify the rules to minimize head trauma, the answer appears obvious. The defense statements cited above that head trauma is an inherent risk of football also seem self-evident. It also seems certain that as our understanding of CTE deepens, the “football industry” will continue to face serious legal challenges—challenges that could threaten the viability of the sport.