How a California court ruling on Pop Warner could affect future of football at all levels

The Post and Courier

January 30, 2020

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 CTE, a degenerative brain condition many experts link to football.

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.

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.

Timothy Epstein, a sports and entertainment attorney in Chicago, told me the problem anyone will have trying to sue for damages against Pop Warner or other football organizations 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.

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.

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.

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 more than 10 percent in the last decade, according to The New York Times.

Who is playing football is changing as well. A recent article in The Atlantic details the evolving 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. Who will be playing the game remains to be seen.

Editor’s note: Dr. David Geier is an orthopedic surgeon in Charleston and author of “That’s Gotta Hurt: The Injuries That Changed Sports Forever.”

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