This could be the end of youth football

The end of a lawsuit this month might also signal the end of youth football. The plaintiff in the suit, Debra Pyke, claimed that her son suffered brain damage from repeated head injuries in his youth football league, which caused chronic traumatic encephelopathy, or CTE. Just a couple of weeks ago, the youth football league Pop Warner settled the $5 million case, reportedly for under $2 million.

Debra Pyke’s son, Joseph Chernach, committed suicide in 2012 at the age of 25. He had played youth football for four years, from the ages of 11 to 14, and her lawsuit claims that he suffered from CTE as a result. CTE has been in the news a great deal of late, after it was discovered by Dr. Bennet Omalu to be the cause of early dementia in an alarming number of NFL football players. (Actor Will Smith plays Omalu in the recently released movie, Concussion.)

Pyke’s lawsuit holds nothing back in its claims about the damage of football. She argues that tackle football is a "war game,” and provides copious examples to back it up, including these:
“Football is not a contact sport. It’s a *collision* sport. Dancing is a good example of a contact sport.” (from former Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty)
“Pro football is like nuclear warfare. There are no winners, only survivors.” (from Frank Gifford, former NFL player and long-time football broadcaster)
The lawsuit includes multiple arguments about why children are more vulnerable to head injuries. Their brains are still developing, and have less myelin to protect their brain cells from damage. Until the age of 14, children's are disproportionately large, and their necks are weaker than adults’ necks, making them prone to greater rotational forces when hit in the head.

Just looking at pictures of young boys wearing football helmets makes many of these points obvious. The idea that young boys are intentionally crashing into one another, often involving their heads, should give any parent cause for concern. Slate writer John Culhane described this as a “bobblehead effect” in which “their brains crash back and forth in their skulls.”

When Pyke’s lawsuit was filed last year, Culhane called it “The Lawsuit That Could Threaten Kids’ Football.” Despite the title of his article, he concluded that
“even in the unlikely event that she [Pyke] wins her case, youth football isn’t going anywhere. But a finding that Pop Warner is carrying on an abnormally dangerous activity would surely drive up the cost of insurance, and therefore make the sport more expensive for participants. It might also make more parents question whether they want to risk their children’s safety.” 
The “unlikely event” didn’t happen, but only because the league settled the suit.

Pop Warner football has a dedicated safety section on its website. It includes pages devoted to their concussion policy, and articles that argue that “rewards outweigh risks” and that “the relationship between developing CTE and playing football remains unclear. The link between the number of concussions a person sustains and the risk of developing CTE is also uncertain.”

Using words such as “unclear” and “uncertain” seems to me to be a classic example of sow confusion rather than admitting the obvious: youth football can be dangerous. Consider the “pee wee” league game in 2012 where five boys got concussions in a single game. The coaches were suspended afterwards, but the damage had already been done. At the time, the NY Times pointed out that “Pop Warner has done more than perhaps any other organization to try to protect young players from head injuries,” but the fact is that football is a violent contact sport.

(Pop Warner did not respond to my request for comment.)

As the New York Post reported when the settlement was announced, Pop Warner had $2 million in liability coverage for players in Wisconsin at the time of the lawsuit, in 2012. They now carry $1 million per player and allow individual chapters to add another $1 million.

Think about that for a second. Why would you want your son to play in a youth sports league where the league feels the need to carry a $2 million insurance policy on every player?

Parents: you and your kids have other options besides football. Youth sports are a great way for kids to exercise, have fun, make new friends, and learn the value of teamwork. Your kids can choose soccer, tennis, baseball, or basketball, all of which have large networks of youth leagues. Many regions of the country have other sports as well. There’s no reason to suit up a child with a helmet on his still-growing head and send him out on a field to be knocked around and possibly concussed.

Joseph Chernach suffered a tragedy, and his family’s suffering will never go away. We’re now learning that even powerfully built grown men suffer permanent injuries on the football field. There’s no reason to expose children or teenagers to similar risks.

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