By:  Meghan Price on February 24, 2014

 

 

Pop Warner football players

The Texas Youth Football Association recently suspended two coaches for encouraging their eight and nine-year-old football players to engage in bad behavior and dangerous play.[1]  The shocking reality about this suspension is that the behavior likely would have gone unpunished if the coaches’ inappropriate aggression – aggression that could lead to serious injuries – had not been showcased on national television.

 

Esquire’s controversial new docuseries, “Friday Night Tykes” chronicles youth football in Texas.  Cameras follow around coaches, players, and parents from five teams in the Texas Youth Football Association.  The show sounds innocent, until a coach advises a little boy to “smash that frigging kid. . . .  You’ve got to smash his head,” or another coach leads a chant in which the boys scream, “F*** the Rockets!”  in preparation for their upcoming opponents.[2]

 

Undoubtedly, football is a way of life in Texas.  According to the 2013 Week One NFL rosters, 186 players hailed from Texas high schools.[3]  It is only natural to grow up playing Pop Warner, dreaming of one day making a professional roster.

 

However, growing up in an environment where a coach tells an eight-year-old to hit his opponent in the helmet, stating, “I don’t care if he don’t get up,”[4] could cost the coach more than a suspension and the boys more than a tackle for loss.  This way of coaching, tackling, and playing football will inevitably lead to more concussions, especially when boys are taught it is okay at a young age.

 

There are protocols in place when someone gets a concussion: stopping all activity for a certain period of time, staying out of the sunlight, and generally resting one’s brain.[5]  Once recovered, it is necessary to take preventative measures against future concussions; however, many athletes just want to play again, increasing the chances of another concussion and more serious trauma.

 

When someone repeatedly takes hits to the head, as many football players do, those concussions can lead to serious brain trauma.  Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative condition that is caused by head trauma and has been linked to depression and dementia.[6]  A 2010 study showed that athletes had 46 out of the 51 neuropathologically confirmed cases of CTE.[7]  CTE is currently only diagnosable with a post-mortem brain scan; however, doctors recently began using a brain-imaging tool to study living, retired NFL players who were showing signs of CTE.[8]

 

The ability to diagnose CTE at an early stage is beneficial; but, more importantly, coaches and leagues everywhere – from Pop Warner to the NFL – should take preventative measures to ensure that the chances of a player developing any sort of head trauma drastically declines.

 

Because of the high number of retired NFL players suffering from mental illnesses, the NFL has tightened the rules: for example, if a player’s helmet comes off during a play, it is a dead ball.  Additionally, helmet-to-helmet hits carry heavy fines and a fifteen-yard penalty.[9]

 

Although these new rules likely reduce the number of concussions, they do not entirely prevent them, nor do they alleviate those already suffering of their illnesses.

 

In 2011, former NFL players filed a lawsuit against the NFL alleging that the NFL did not take the necessary precautions to protect players from concussive and subconcussive head injuries.[10]  In August, the parties agreed to a settlement.[11]

 

The litigation seemed to be coming to a close until January, when Judge Anita Brody rejected preliminary approval for the $765 million dollar settlement because “not all retired NFL football players who ultimately receive a qualifying diagnosis, or their related claimants, will be paid.”[12]  She noted that, in many hypothetical situations, $765 million dollars would not be enough to pay all those injured.[13]

 

Judge Brody’s rejection of the settlement emphasizes the gravity of the consequences of concussions and repeated hits to the head.  While the NFL has a sufficient amount of money to settle with a large number of injured players, it would be impossible for many other leagues.

 

When a television show seemingly celebrates a culture of overly aggressive and indisputably “illegal” coaching, where does the fault lie?

 

Suppose some boys on “Friday Night Tykes,” who were shown tackling helmet-to-helmet because their coach told them to, eventually make it to the NFL.  Suppose they retire and suffer mental health problems, or they retire because of mental health problems.  Whose responsibility is it when the brain trauma began at 8 years old?

 

I would argue that it is not the NFL’s.

 

Sure, two coaches in this youth league were suspended.  But, not before one boy suffered such a bad head injury, that while in the hospital, he said to his mother, “I do not know who you are.  Please leave me alone.”[14]  Not before a child hyperventilated and cried the entire way home from practice.  Not before one coach told a player to knock down a player on the other team before the first snap. Not before the one coach told his players “there should be no reason why you don’t make other teams cry.”[15]

 

“Friday Night Tykes” shows that there are many parents and coaches who seem to put their child’s Pop Warner football record ahead of his mental and physical health.[16]

 

While winning a Pop Warner football championship may be important to coaches and parents, it should not outweigh the safety and well being of the children participants.  If concern over player safety is not reinforced at a young age, there is an increased risk that the young players will not even remember their Pop Warner football experiences thirty years from now.


[1] See ‘Friday Night Tykes’ Reality Show Coaches Suspended, ABC News (Feb. 5, 2014, 10:01 PM), http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/entertainment/2014/02/friday-night-tykes-reality-show-coaches-suspended/ (discussing “Friday Night Tykes” suspension).

[2] See Tim Teeman, The All-American Abuse of ‘Friday Night Tykes, Daily Beast (Jan. 23, 2014), http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/01/23/the-all-american-abuse-of-friday-night-tykes.html (discussing offensive coaching on “Friday Night Tykes”).

[3] See NFL 2013: Breakdown of Total Players from Each State, Sporting News NFL, (Sept. 18, 2013), http://www.sportingnews.com/nfl/story/2013-09-18/nfl-players-state-by-state-breakdown-california-florida-louisiana-texas-south-ca (charting where most NFL players hail from on Week 1 Rosters).

[4] See ‘Friday Night Tykes’ Reality Show Coaches Suspended, supra note 1 (giving examples of what coaches yell on “Friday Night Tykes”).

[5] See Concussion – Overview, WebMD, http://www.webmd.com/brain/tc/traumatic-brain-injury-concussion-overview?page=3 (last visited Feb. 22, 2014) (discussing protocol for healing concussions).

[6] See William Weinbaum & Steve Delsohn, Former NFL Stars Tony Dorsett, Leonard Marshall, Joe DeLameilleure Show Indicators of CTE Resulting from Football and Concussions, ESPN.com (Nov. 7, 2013), http://espn.go.com/espn/otl/story/_/id/9931754/former-nfl-stars-tony-dorsett-leonard-marshall-joe-delameilleure-show-indicators-cte-resulting-football-concussions (discussing consequences of CTE and repeated hits to head).

[7] See Ann C. McKee et al., Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in Athletes: Progressive Tauopathy Following Repetitive Head Injury, 68 Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology 709 (July 2009), available at http://www.bu.edu/cste/files/2012/01/McKee_Chronic-Traumatic-Encephalopathy_2009.pdf (discussing results from study of confirmed cases of CTE).

[8] See Weinbaum & Delsohn, supra note 6 (discussing how doctors confirm CTE). See also Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, UCLA Study Finds Signs of CTE in Living Former NFL Players for the First Time (Jan. 22, 2013), http://espn.go.com/espn/otl/story/_/id/8867972/ucla-study-finds-signs-cte-living-former-nfl-players-first-time (discussing how doctors recently were able to detect symptoms of CTE in living, retired football players).

[9] See Ashley Fox, NFL Taking a Hard Line on Illegal Hits, ESPN.com (Sept. 20, 2013), http://espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/id/9698667/nfl-taking-hard-line-illegal-hits (discussing fines and penalties for helmet to helmet hits); see also Kevin Seifert, Inside Slant: Tentacles of Helmet Rule, ESPN.com (Nov. 29, 2013), http://espn.go.com/blog/nflnation/post/_/id/103922/inside-slant-tentacles-of-helmet-rule (discussing NFL’s helmet dead ball rule).

[10] In re NFL Players’ Concussion Injury Litig., No. 2:12-2323, 2014 WL 114351, at *2 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 14, 2014) (order denying Motion for Preliminary Approval and Class Certification) (giving background on NFL Concussion Injury Litigation).

[11] See id. (discussing timeline of claims and settlement).

[12] See id. at *1 (discussing concerns with proposed settlement).

[13] See id. (discussing concerns with proposed litigation).

[14] See Teeman, supra note 2 (discussing story of one “Friday Night Tykes” player, Donte Goss. “After one game, their son Donte had suffered such a serious head injury that Shakia said he had told her in the hospital, ‘I do not know who you are.  Please leave me alone.’  That had upset her, she wept, and Donte is still recovering.”).

[15] See Andy Nesbitt, ‘Friday Night Tykes’ Is the Most Depressing Show on Television, Fox Sports (Jan. 15, 2014), http://msn.foxsports.com/buzzer/story/friday-night-tykes-is-the-most-depressing-show-on-television-011514 (discussing “Friday Night Tykes” and coaches’ behavior).

[16] See ‘Friday Night Tykes’ Reality Show Coaches Suspended, supra note 1 (stating comments of ESPN analyst, author, Tom Farrey, who called “Friday Night Tykes” “sanctioned child abuse”).

 

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