Sport Safety

SPORT SAFETY: New Federal Lawsuit Charges Pop Warner Football As Source of Concussions

Concussions have been making headlines across the country for several years now, but this past week, a new lawsuit was filed that pits the family of a former football player against Pop Warner football.

In short, this  focuses on a young man who played Pop Warner football for four years as a kid, but by the time he was 25, he had become seriously depressed and ended up committing suicide. The autopsy report found strong evidence of CTE, which of course is caused by blows to the head.

Joseph Chernach’s family in Wisconsin filed a $5 million federal lawsuit against Pop Warner football, alleging that Pop Warner “knew or should have known that tackle football was dangerous for children,and exposed children to head injuries, including dementia pugilistica (a kind of CTE).”

The lawsuit goes on to say that Pop Warner’s actions were “deliberate” – in effect, that Pop Warner knew, or should have known, that kids that young can easily suffer serious long-term brain damage from concussions.

The complaint says that even as long ago as 1997, there were medical protocols in place regarding concussions, but the Pop Warner  really didn’t follow those rules. Even more, they didn’t use the safest helmets for the kids, didn’t limit the amount of hitting and contact in practice, and so on.

Chernach played four years of Pop Warner as a running back and linebacker, and usually played every down of every game. He also played football and wrestled in HS. He also was a pole vauiter. He went to Central Mich Univ. By all accounts, he was a happy and outgoing young man during HS and into college.

But during college, Chernach eventually stopped going to class and dropped out. He returned home, became withdrawn and a recluse, and refused all medical help from his family. Then, in June 2012, Joseph killed himself.

Brain tissue was examined by Dr Ann McKee, one of the top experts on CTE, and she concluded that there “were very serious changes in the brain stem” and “it’s the worst example of this in someone this young.” She was referring to the build-up of tau (which is the tell-tale sign of  CTE) in the young man’s brain.

And here’s another new case. This past week, the mother of a teenage water polo player sued USA Water Polo in federal court saying that the organization didn’t do enough to protect players from concussions.

I have talked on my radio show over the last couple of years that these kinds of lawsuits would eventually begin to pop up…and now they are.

I also imagine it’s only a matter of time before we’ll see a major lawsuit filed against HS football team and school district, claiming that a kid suffered concussions which led to serious medical problems or death.

In fact, there’s already a lawsuit out in Illinois that is built upon that very supposition.

All of this only adds more uncertainty to sports parents who have to decide whether they will allow their kids to play football and other contact sports, like lacrosse, field hockey, soccer, and ice hockey.

In addition, this also means that insurance companies everywhere are really going to take a hard look as to whether they want to be in the business of insuring contact sports. That is, at the end of the day, it’s the insurance companies that have to cover the cost of all these concussion-based lawsuits.


One can argue that in the Chernach case, it might be difficult to prove that his suicide was caused strictly by his play in Pop Warner. After all, the kid did play HS football, wrestled, and was a pole vaulter. Perhaps those activities also led to the brain damage. In fact, that’s been the immediate defense from Pop Warner.

But some legal experts point out that the Chernach family only has to show that playing Pop Warner led, in part, to the damage. That’s the key to see whether this lawsuit keeps going.

Steve Kallas, attorney and sports parenting expert, noted on the show this AM this is just the opposite of the former NFL players who have filed suit against the NFL. In its defense, the NFL has said that these individuals played pro football, college football, and HS football, and as such, it’s impossible to tell which caused CTE to erupt.

In this case, though, the Chernach attorneys are saying that despite the fact that Joseph played HS football, wrestled, and was a pole vaulter, it was the Pop Warner involvement that, for the most part, led to his demise.

There have been a couple of other recent cases where young athletes have taken their lives, presumably due to concussions. There was the young football player at Penn who hung himself at age 21. Owen Thomas, who by all accounts was well-adjusted, suddenly went through an emotional outburst before killing himself. An autopsy revealed a high level of CTE.


But let’s remember this: concussions weren’t invented just a few years ago. They’ve been around for a long, long time. I recall concerns about concussions when I played HS and college football. Of course, in those days, if a player was concussed, he was brought out of the game until he got rid of the cob webs and then was allowed to go back and play.

Only now have we seen so many former NFL players run into health troubles years after they have retired. But now we’re also seeing alarming trends with younger players.

There’s more and more evidence that when it comes to tackle football, you should NOT allow your kids to play full-contact under the age of 12.

This latest study comes from the prestigious medical journal Neurology, and features a study from Boston University which strongly suggests that if you let your son play tackle football under the age of 12, there’s a higher risk that he will develop memory and thinking problems as he’s  get older.

This study was conducted studying 42 former NFL players, ages 41-65, all of whom played tackle football at young ages.

In short, those former NFL players performed 20 percent less well than the group who didn’t play tackle football.

Concluded Dr. Robert Stern, who was the senior author of the study which comes out of BU School of Medicine: “The message is, the earlier you start playing tackle football, the more issues you may have.”

This comes after the work of Dr. Robert Cantu, the noted neurosurgeon, who has said that kids shouldn’t play tackle football until they are 14. Dr. Cantu says that the brain is still very much developing in those critically important years, and since the neck muscles aren’t strong enough yet, the brain and head wobble like a bobble-head and when struck, it can cause more damage than it might to an older athlete.

As I’ve noted many times on the show, Tom Brady didn’t play tackle football until he was 14. Perhaps the time has come to follow that example and not let our kids play tackle football until they’re in their teen-age years.