It is an American tradition. Football season is underway. From Florida to Hawaii, millions of children from ages 6 to 14 participate in youth football. Many have dreams of someday joining their heroes and playing in the National Football League. But will there be an NFL when these children grow up? The recent trend of traumatic brain injury lawsuits involving football pose serious questions whether the sport can survive at the youth level.
The concerns over brain injuries in football have been well documented. The movie Concussion, a starring Will Smith, brought to light the disturbing trend of former NFL players developing CTE, a chemical formed in the brain due to repeated head trauma. Over the last five years, we have seen the deaths of several former NFL players, including hall of famers Junior Seau and Mike Webster, blamed on CTE. Players with high levels of CTE have been connected with suffering from severe depression. In some cases, it has resulted in suicide.
While the dangers of football are well known, it remains to be seen whether the sport is more dangerous effects on children. Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football program, recently settled a brain injury lawsuit with the family of Joseph Chernach, a 25-year-old Wisconsin man, who committed suicide. The family claimed Chernach’s suicide stemmed from concussions suffered from playing youth football starting at age 11. An autopsy showed Chernach had high levels of CTE.
In 2012, thousands of former NFL players filed a class-action lawsuit against the league for hiding information about the connection of CTE and repeated head trauma from football. The NFL chose to settle, giving $5 million to each player who had suffered head trauma. Do the math and it is a staggering amount of money.
The brain injury case of Joseph Chernach is particularly disturbing. He played Pop Warner football from 1997 to 2000. By age 19, he was an outstanding student and scored a 19 on the ACT. He achieved high grades as a freshman at the University of Central Michigan and appeared to have a bright future. But Chernach’s life began to dramatically change his sophomore year. His grades slipped and his cognitive skills significantly declined each year until his death. Doctors determined Chernach had suffered effects from post-concussion syndrome. He became increasingly depressed and often displayed wild mood swings. Chernach eventually can reach the point of uncontrollable suicidal thoughts.
The CDC recently announced it has started a study to examine the effects of head injuries in youth football. The study will use high-tech mouthguard sensors to collect data based on the different techniques of tackling and how they relate to head injuries. In an attempt to promote new safety measures, the NFL and USA Football began the Heads Up Football program, which encourages kids to always keep their head up when tackling.