By Francis M. Smith
Perhaps more so than any other sport, even the one nicknamed America's “national pastime,” football has captured the imagination of millions across the United States. But only in recent years has attention become focused on the deadly dangers that the sport can pose to its players, even years after they step off the field. Experts have begun to study the deleterious effects of football-related brain injuries on professional players, most of whom are healthy and strong young men – but children in high school and junior leagues are just as vulnerable, if not more.
Until recently, when most people heard the phrase “sports injury,” they thought about bruises, torn ligaments, fractured bones. Now, concussions – traumatic brain injuries, or TBIs – have come to the fore in public awareness when it comes to contact sports like football. Increasingly, research is revealing the insidious long-term effects of concussion injuries and the complications that can arise from them. As one mother tragically learned, the lasting repercussions of brain injuries can be truly devastating, for both the injured child and his entire family.
Following the death of her son, mother Debra Pyka filed a wrongful death suit against the national youth football organization Pop Warner. Her son, Joseph Chernach, had played football as a participant in the organization's program for four years, starting when he was 11 years old. During that time, he suffered multiple concussions, and went on to sustain additional concussion injuries playing football later in his youth. Autopsy reports revealed that Chernach suffered from a condition known as Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy (CTE), which is a progressive degenerative disease associated with patients who have a history of repeated brain trauma. Both concussion injuries and “subconcussive” blows to the head that do not produce concussion symptoms are believed to contribute to this condition.
The medical profession has long been aware that brain damage can produce dramatic changes to a person's mood, personality, judgment, reasoning ability, memory, and behavior. It is somewhat more recently that doctors realized that concussion injuries can leave lingering brain damage that contributes to depression and other physical, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral issues. In her wrongful death lawsuit, Debra Pyka asserted that the brain injuries her son suffered during his tenure as a player in Pop Warner's football program contributed significantly to her son's suicide by hanging at age 25. The organization settled with Ms. Pyka for a sum between $1 and $2 million, and now carries insurance coverage worth a minimum of $1 million per player.
Her wrongful death lawsuit asserted that Pop Warner knew, but failed to inform, players and parents that younger children stand a greater risk of serious injury from playing football than older players (for whom the risks are still substantial). Due to the weight of football helmets – which are ostensibly worn to protect players from head injury – and the proportionally-larger heads and incompletely-developed neck muscles of younger kids, their heads are more likely to snap back and forth, subjecting their brains to greater rotational force during a collision. In organizing a league in which young children were permitted to play tackle football with these helmets and in failing to warn families of the risk of brain injury, Ms. Pyka asserted that Pop Warner recklessly exposed her child and others to risk of lasting brain damage – which would ultimately contribute to Joseph's death.
While Pop Warner has, in recent years, updated its safety policies to address the risk of concussion injuries, the presence of links on their website to opinion pieces that dispute or obscure the dangers of TBIs calls into question the seriousness with which the organization regards the risk to the children who join their leagues. Contrary to the bold assertion of one op-ed piece linked from Pop Warner's site, it seems unlikely that Debra Pyka would find that “rewards outweigh risks” in youth football – nor would the parents of the handful of young people every year that die from football-related injuries.
Certainly, no activity is without risk, and athletic competitions especially involve the potential for physical injury. However, parents and young players have the right to be informed of known risks, especially when those dangers are greater than the risks of comparable athletic activities. Only when participants and their families are fully informed of the known potential for serious injury can they make informed decisions about participation. And yes, that might lead to more parents steering their kids away from football and toward less dangerous sports. This can be alarming to organizations dedicated to the appreciation of the sport, and to schools and universities that bring in impressive revenue streams from football games. However, none of that is important enough to recklessly withhold information about the risks inherent in the sport from potential players and their guardians.
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