I have put off writing this column for a while now. I read discussions of how this court verdict meant that the future of football was safe from legal threats due to brain trauma. Before I commented, I wanted to think it through, to hear what experts said in the days and weeks following the verdict, and to discuss it with an attorney who understood the issues. Now I have decided to share my thoughts about the case against Pop Warner in my latest newspaper column.
Case against Pop Warner football rejected by a California court
The biggest victory for the NFL this season took place in California, only not on a field in San Francisco, Oakland or Los Angeles.
Just two weeks before it was set to go to trial, a judge in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles rejected the case of Kimberly Archie and Jo Cornell against Pop Warner. The Southern California mothers sued the youth football league, claiming negligence and wrongful death for their sons. After hearing oral arguments for both sides, judge Philip Gutierrez granted a motion of summary judgment to Pop Warner.
The two men in the case – Tyler Cornell and Paul Bright Jr. – died in 2014, Cornell from suicide and Bright after a motorcycle accident. Examinations of their brains revealed the men had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain condition many experts link to football.
Judge fails to see evidence that Pop Warner youth football led to the men’s deaths
Gutierrez concluded there was insufficient evidence their participation in Pop Warner football as children directly led to the deaths. Archie told the San Diego Union-Tribune after the verdict that she intends to appeal the ruling. “You don’t declare a winner after the first quarter. This case isn’t dead.”
The judge stated he failed to see a clear cause-and-effect relationship between the kids playing youth football and their causes of death years later, mentioning there was no documentation of head trauma during Pop Warner. The attorney for the plaintiffs expressed disappointment at that point, arguing that a concussion diagnosis shouldn’t be the standard by which to judge a case of death from CTE.
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Repetitive blows versus concussions and the link to CTE
With so much we don’t know about CTE, including all sorts of environmental, social and genetic factors that may play a role, one aspect that CTE researchers seem to agree on is that it’s repetitive blows, like blocking by linemen or punches in boxing, over a long period of time that can lead to the brain degeneration, not outright concussions.
The challenge of proving that football directly caused brain injuries later in life
Timothy Epstein, a sports and entertainment attorney in Chicago, told me the problem anyone will have trying to sue for damages against not only Pop Warner, but any football league or organization, is proving proximate cause. Did a former athlete’s injuries result directly from football at one level and one level only and not as a result of any other possible factor?
In fact, in a discussion of this summary judgment ruling, the National Law Review pointed out that both men who died also played high school football. One of them played the sport in college. And the man who committed suicide had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
What this case could mean for the future of football
I’ve always thought that if any one thing would ever bring about the end of football, it would be the courts. Someone would win a massive judgment against the NFL, high school football or youth football, and dominoes would quickly fall. Some observers thought this current case could even be the one to do it, as it would have been the first case against Pop Warner to go to trial.
After the ruling, Steve Famiano, the co-founder of the California Youth Football Alliance, told the San Diego Union-Tribune, “This is big.” He argued parents should ultimately be the ones to decide if their kids play the sport.
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But that’s exactly where football seems to be in trouble. More and more, parents are deciding to keep their kids off the football field.
Parents are increasingly worried about letting their kids play football
A study released in August found 40 percent of Arizona parents would not allow their children to play football, a 10 percent increase since 2016. Not surprisingly then, the number of athletes who played high school football in the state dropped 26 percent between 2015 and 2018.
Nationwide, the number of boys playing high school football has dropped over 10 percent in the last decade, according to The New York Times.
Who is playing football is changing as well. In an article for The Atlantic, Alana Semuels recently detailed the evolving demographics of football.
The changing demographics of football
According to a study by sociologists at the University of Nebraska, 57 percent of black respondents say they would encourage their children to play football, while only 37 percent of white respondents would do so. A University of Michigan sociologist found that compared to 44 percent of black eighth-, tenth- and 12th graders surveyed who play tackle football, only 29 percent of white boys play the sport. Football is becoming more popular in states with a higher percentage of black residents. It’s declining in majority-white states.
Super Bowl week is a celebration of all that is good about football and the NFL. It seems clear both will be around for decades to come. What football looks like, and who plays it, remains to be seen.
Note: This article is a modified version of my sports medicine column in the January 30, 2020 issue of The Post and Courier.
District Court Grants Summary Judgment in Youth Football CTE Case. By Anthony B. Corleto and Ian A. Stewart. National Law Review. January 2, 2020.
Wrongful death suit against Pop Warner by Southern California moms rejected by judge. By Tod Leonard. The San Diego Union-Tribune. December 29, 2019.
Inside Football’s Campaign to Save the Game. By Ken Belson, Quoctrung Bui, Joe Drape, Rumsey Taylor and Joe Ward. The New York Times. November 7, 2019.
Barrow Concussion Survey: Fewer Parents Let Kids Play Contact Sports. Barrow Neurologic Institute. August 22, 2019.
The White Flight From Football. By Alana Semuels. The Atlantic. February 1, 2019.