Last June, this blog published an article about President Obama’s so-called “concussion conference,” which he called to address mild traumatic brain injuries in young athletes that many alleged were leading to mental illness and other adverse effects. This came around the same time that about 5,000 former NFL players brought a lawsuit against the league, alleging that it “was aware of the health risks associated with repetitive blows producing sub-concussive and concussive results.” Also coinciding with the conference was a study in JAMA that found “athletes who had played the most seasons of football tended to have the least hippocampal volume, ” referring to the area of the brain responsible for memory and emotional processing.
President Obama, in 2014, characterized NFL players as “grown men who choose to accept some risk to play a game that they love,” but a lawsuit brought by a Wisconsin family raises questions about whether football is an appropriate sport for children to play. The Chernach family in 2012 suffered the loss of twenty-five-year-old Joseph, who took his own life and was later found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain condition. His mother claims that his eight-year football career is to blame for his tragic death.
The family argues that the Pop Warner football league knew about risks associated with the sport and failed both to inform players of and protect them from repetitive head trauma. In addition to these more abstract claims, the Chernachs claim that the organization should have trained coaches more thoroughly, used safer helmets (and instructed players to use them properly), and limited the amount of contact used in practices. Moreover, Chernach’s estate details ways in which Pop Warner failed to follow concussion-related guidelines laid out in 1997 by medical professionals.
A story on the family in the New York Times explains that the case may fundamentally change youth football in this country: “If a court ruled against Pop Warner […], insurers could potentially increase their premiums to offset legal risks,” which may leave leagues unable to afford coverage. New York City is looking into the feasibility of mandating that a doctor be present at all youth football games, but this, too, may be too expensive to work.
Despite his never having been diagnosed with a concussion, Chernach’s autopsy revealed, according to neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee, “very severe changes in the brainstem.” She even went so far as to call them “the most severe [she’s] seen in a person this age,” explaining that most cases of CTE occur in people past the age of forty, most of whom played football for longer periods of time than did Chernach. McKee noted some of the worst damage was to a part of the brain associated with depression, which mirrors Charnach’s behavior in his final months; his parents claim that before his death he became depressed, reclusive, angry, dependent on alcohol, and antisocial.
This Times article indicates that though Chernach’s estate may have a difficult time proving that Pop Warner’s behavior was “deliberate, an actual disregard of the plaintiff’s right to safety, health, or life, and sufficiently aggravated to warrant punishment by punitive damages,” this case will certainly raise awareness of the dangers of sub-concussive injuries among youth football players.