Two moms who share a devastating loss – the tragic deaths of their sons – are fighting for changes in youth football both in the courtroom and through grassroots advocacy. They believe their sons might still be alive today had the sport operated differently when their sons played at the youth league level.
In 2016, Kimberly Archie and Jo Cornell filed a lawsuit against Pop Warner Little Scholars (Pop Warner/PWLS), an 89-year national institution, according to the San Diego Union Tribune. They allege that Pop Warner failed to institute safety guidelines across the league; failed to adopt equipment standards; and failed to require brain injury history. They believe the sport and the repetitive hits to their sons’ heads caused each of them to develop Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which is a degenerative brain disease.
Last fall, Judge Philip Gutierrez, overseeing the case in a California federal court, found that there was enough evidence linking the young men’s brain injuries to their playing Pop Warner youth league football. Specifically, the judge found the injuries resulted from the “acts or omissions of PWLS.” It was the furthest a case of this type against Pop Warner has advanced and an important ruling, which officially links the actions of a youth league football program to the life-changing injuries quietly inflicted on young athletes’ brains.
Symptoms of CTE are thought to include physical problems as well as difficulties with thinking, emotions and other behaviors such as aggression, memory loss, depression, and an increased risk of suicide. Archie and Cornell have shared their sons’ stories, which reflect many of these symptoms. The young men’s final acts were even described as suicidal.
Tyler Cornell (Jo’s son who played Pop Warner football between ages 7-14 years), died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in April 2014 after seven years of battling mental illness the family believes was connected to CTE. Five months later, Paul Bright, Jr. (Archie’s son who played football with the league between ages 8-17 years) died after smashing his new motorcycle into a car while traveling 60 mph down a Los Angeles, California street.
Archie has described her son’s death as eerily similar to the quasi-suicidal actions of former NFL player Junior Seau before he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2012. Two years before his death, the San Diego Union Tribune reported Seau drove his vehicle off a 30-foot cliff in Carlsbad, California. He had been released from jail earlier in the morning the day of his crash, after allegedly assaulting his girlfriend. After Seau’s death an autopsy of his brain revealed he, too, had CTE.
The ruling in Archie and Cornell’s case may signal a shift in mindset about how young athletes play the sport and may also be indicative of broader efforts to keep athletes safe. For example, the two moms joined Seau’s sister Mary and other women whose family members suffered from CTE to launch Faces of CTE. The organization raises awareness about the disease and encourages brain donations for the benefit of research, like that of neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu.
Omalu discovered CTE was in 2002 while examining former Pittsburg Steeler Mike Webster’s brain during an autopsy. Omalu’s work served as the storyline for the 2015 blockbuster movie, “Concussion,” which helped heighten the discussion about head injuries sustained while playing football.
Faces of CTE has also joined a movement that encourages children younger than 14 years old to only play flag football to reduce the number of impacts to their heads. And, they are not alone in such advocacy efforts. State lawmakers across the country have proposed various bills in an attempt to make the sport safer.
Even in the deep south, where the gridiron game is nearly the equivalent of religion, Alabama lawmakers are considering HB 9. The bill would require volunteer coaches take an online course or course in a classroom setting covering important topics such as emergency preparedness, concussions and head trauma, conditioning and the use of training equipment, heat and extreme weather and other topics. If it passes it would apply to volunteers helping coach contact sports including football, baseball, basketball, softball, volleyball, soccer, ice or field hockey, cheerleading and lacrosse for athletes 14 and younger.
While there is some resistance to their efforts, Archie and Cornell have support from the likes of Hall of Famer and Oakland Raiders cornerback, Mike Haynes. He explains that “most people are just uneducated about [CTE].” He is also the father of two college football players and encourages parents and caregivers to do their own homework.
The adults should ask more questions about the results of impact on their child and should be more familiar with how a youth league program operates, including training and the frequency children are exposed to hits. Haynes’ point is that everyone has a role and protecting young athletes and their futures should be a top priority for all of those involved.
San Diego Union Tribune
Faces of CTE
Alabama Legislature Online