Houston ChronicleJune 23, 2021
A federal judge in Galveston dealt a crushing defeat to Troy and Donna Yarbrough this week, dismissing a pioneering civil rights lawsuit that alleged high school football practice had caused permanent damage to their teenage son.
Judge Jeffrey V. Brown, a former flag football coach at the YMCA, ruled the parents had no constitutional grounds to sue the Santa Fe Independent School District. Their 2018 suit argued that children have a fundamental right to be protected from concussions and potential brain damage when they play contact sports. Brown ruled that a public school district is not responsible for concussions inflicted by one player upon another.
Instead, a supporting opinion by a magistrate judge concluded, the real culprit for these life-altering injuries is football culture, which expects boys to tough it out at all costs.
Attorney Clay Grover, who represented the school district, said the dismissal was appropriate, but noted that “school district administrators empathize with Mr. Yarbrough for any injury he suffered while playing football.” He said the district and school follows UIL guidance on safety and prevention.
The Yarbrough’s lawyer, Sherry Scott Chandler, said the couple is weighing their legal options. They respect the ruling, but believe it’s incorrect, in part because the 5th U.S. Circuit has not yet applied this legal concept.
“Almost every circuit in the country recognizes this type of injury and conduct as a constitutional injury,” she said. “It’s not something where you go out on the field and accidentally get injured in a rough sport.”
She said high school coaches ran drills that caused these injuries and the district disregarded or failed to train employees in UIL regulations that require them to avoid players making head-to-head contact. The Yarbroughs’ was among the first concussion lawsuits in Texas. Plaintiffs elsewhere have prevailed in these lawsuits. Nationwide, the couple’s claim flagged the devastating consequences of head injuries experienced by tens of thousands of young athletes. Repeated concussions, often from helmet-to-helmet contact, have been linked to degenerative Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE in more than 100 NFL playeres, according to the Concussion Legacy Foundation.
The Yarbroughs said their son, identified in court documents as C.Y., suffered blurred vision and vomiting and was diagnosed with a severe concussion and cervical sprain after a football practice his sophomore year. In a grim stroke of fate, the teen later sustained multiple gunshot wounds during the 2018 massacre at Santa Fe High School. He is now 20 and attending college, according to the Yarbroughs’ lawsuit.
The family did not claim the coaches knowingly forced their son into danger involving a known victim, according to a memo by Magistrate Judge Andrew M. Edison, but instead their suit focused on “the overall danger of the sport and the coaches continuously urging players to meet aggression with aggression.”
“Notably, Yarbrough does not complain that the coaches knowingly forced him to continue contact drills after he suffered a concussion,” the magistrate said. The family also does not say the coaches knew of an immediate danger specific to Yarbrough when he participated in football practice, in Edison’s view.
“The present lawsuit is, in essence, a condemnation of the football culture which pervades much of society in this part of the country,” Edison wrote. “Boiled down, Yarbrough contends that the game of football, with its constant physical contact, aggression and violence, is an inherently dangerous sport. Allowing high school football players to repeatedly hit each other, Yarbrough maintains, puts these youngsters in harm’s way.”
Chandler, the Yarbroughs’ lawyer, said that while the NFL and NCAA train staff and enforce rules to avoid injuries, high schools often don’t train athletic staff and trainers to recognize concussions or dangerous situations that are going to cause concussions. Unless school learn and adhere to UIL rules, she believes concussions will keep happening.