Following the tragic and early deaths of their sons, two mothers have filed a lawsuit against youth football league, Pop Warner, alleging the league didn’t do enough to protect their sons from brain injuries. Both women had sons diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) after they passed away, and both young men exhibited signs of the progressive brain disease despite neither having been diagnosed with a concussion. A recent study, however, suggests that despite previous theories on CTE, a concussion may not be necessary for CTE to develop.
The National Football League has faced numerous lawsuits alleging it failed to adequately protect professional players. It announced a brain injury settlement with NFL players and has changed its concussion policies.
Youth Football Players Diagnosed with CTE During Autopsies
Tyler Cornell, Age 25
In 2014, Tyler Cornell committed suicide at the age of 25. He played Pop Warner Football from age eight to 17, when he switched to high school football. Although he suffered thousands of hits to his head, he was never diagnosed with a concussion. According to reports, however, after graduating from high school, Tyler experienced anxiety and depression. After hearing about CTE, Tyler’s mom, Jo Cornell, sent Tyler’s brain to Boston University to be examined for the brain condition.
Researchers at Boston University confirmed Tyler had CTE when he committed suicide.
“This is something no parent should go through,” Cornell said. “There are widows and widowers, but there’s no word for a parent who has lost a child. It’s so awful they don’t even name it.”
Paul Bright Jr., Age 24
Like Tyler Cornell, Paul Bright Jr. was diagnosed with CTE after he died at age 24. Bright played Pop Warner football from the ages of seven to 14 and he too showed signs of CTE before his death. Bright died in a motorcycle accident driving 60-miles-per hour in Los Angeles.
“Paul played tackle football for just nine years, from ages 7 to 15,” Paul’s mother, Kimberly Archie wrote for the Huffington Post. “He never suffered from a concussion or any other diagnosable brain-related injury. My son developed CTE simply from taking one too many hits over the years—while wearing a heavy plastic helmet specifically designed for NFL players, not children.”
Pop Warner Brain Injury Lawsuit Filed
In 2016 Jo Cornell and Kimberly Archie filed a lawsuit against Pop Warner Little Scholars, Inc., alleging players and their parents weren’t warned of the risks associated with playing football. They argue that even though their sons did not suffer concussions, they were still at an increased risk of CTE due to the repeated head injuries.
Pop Warner attempted to have the lawsuit dismissed, but Judge Philip Gutierrez found there was enough evidence to support the women’s claims that the brain injuries were linked to the youth football league. Furthermore, Judge Gutierrez found there was evidence that Pop Warner misled participants about its safety standards. The Pop Warner brain injury lawsuit was allowed to continue with most of the claims intact.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive brain disease marked by impaired judgment, cognitive deficits, memory problems, confusion, and dementia. Patients may experience mood symptoms and behavior issues, including extreme anger or depression. Complicating matters is that CTE can only be diagnosed through an examination of the brain after the patient’s death. Research on CTE up to recently suggested that repeated concussions could be the cause of the disorder, but a study published on January 18, 2018, by researchers at Boston University suggests that head injuries—not just those linked to concussions—could also cause CTE to develop.
“The concussions we see on the ballfield or the battlefield or wherever—those people are going to get attention,” says lead investigator Dr. Lee Goldstein, “because it’s obvious they’ve had some sort of injury. We’re really worried about the many more people who are getting hit and getting hurt—their brain is getting hurt—but many are not getting help because we can’t see the evidence on the outside that their brain is actually hurt. It’s a silent injury.”
According to Goldstein, as many as 20 percent of diagnosed cases of CTE involved people who had no reported concussions, suggesting that the focus on concussions as the cause of CTE is too limiting. It also means that even younger athletes who have no history of concussions could be at risk of developing CTE. Researchers were still quick to stress that concussions themselves are dangerous and can lead to life-threatening complications.
The first known case of CTE in an NFL player was Mike Webster, a player who was never diagnosed with a concussion nor suspected of having one.
Safety Advocates Move to Ban Youth Tackle Football
Some lawmakers and safety advocates have moved to ban tackle football for youth. In Illinois, a proposed state law—named for NFL player Dave Duerson who committed suicide and was later diagnosed with CTE—would ban tackle football for players under the age of 12. Advocates argue that playing tackle football for a prolonged period increases the risks of developing CTE.
“Children as young as 5 are playing tackle football,” said Illinois State Rep. Carol Sente. “They are taking hits in practice and at games, with forces that are similar to what college players are taking.”
Based on recent study findings and the Pop Warner brain injury lawsuit filed by Cornell and Archie, those children could be at an increased risk of serious brain injuries, similar to those experienced by Tyler Cornell and Paul Bright Jr.