A Wisconsin woman last week sued the nation’s largest youth football organization, claiming that her 25-year-old son’s suicide was caused by brain damage that resulted from his playing football at a young age.
In the complaint against Pop Warner, Debra Pyka claims that her son, Joseph Chernach, committed suicide in 2012 after suffering from dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) brought on by concussions he suffered while playing in a Pop Warner league from 1997 to 2000, NBC News reported.
“Joseph Chernach was damaged as a result of playing Pop Warner football, including pain, suffering and disability during his lifetime, which lead to despair that ultimately lead to his death,” the complaint reads.
“Pop Warner — by engaging in the business of sponsoring, organizing and promoting tackle football for children — engaged in conduct that was outrageous, malicious, intentional and was done with the intentional disregard of Joseph Chernach’s rights as well as all other children who played Pop Warner football, not just in the State of Wisconsin but everywhere in the United States,” the complaint also says.
The complaint, which seeks $5 million in damages, asserts that Pop Warner was negligent because it failed to require athletic trainers at games and practices; that it failed to properly train coaches in injury prevention and concussion treatment; and by failing to educate players and parents about possible long-term brain damage that could result from playing football. It also alleges that the organization was negligent because it did not institute proper concussion management or return to play rules for players suspected of having concussions.
According to the Associated Press, Chernach’s family found out about his brain damage through an autopsy after his suicide.
CTE, the brain condition thought to be linked to concussions and repetitive hits to the head, has received increasing attention around football after the high-profile suicide deaths of former NFL players like Junior Seau and tests that have found the disease in dozens of former NFL players, as well as in baseball players who also committed suicide and athletes in other sports. The disease is thought to contribute to dementia and depression.
Pop Warner is the latest organization to face lawsuits over the way it handled concussions in the past. More than 4,500 former NFL players sued the league in recent years, alleging that it covered up the dangers concussions posed to players (the NFL and former players reached a $765 million settlement; how that settlement affects CTE victims is a major piece of ongoing efforts to finalize the agreement). The NCAA last year settled a similar suit with former football players and other athletes and is in the midst of a wrongful death suit from the family of a former football player at Frostburg State University in Maryland. Multiple state high school federations have also been sued over their handling of concussions in football and other sports.
Pop Warner has in recent years adopted new concussion rules and policies, including return-to-play protocols and limits on practice times. ESPN reported in 2013 that Pop Warner participation rates declined by nearly 10 percent from 2010 to 2012, and while a number of factors contributed to the drop, the organization’s chief medical officer said then that concern over concussions were “the No. 1 cause.”