On Thursday, Debra Pyka of Hixton, Wisconsin, sued Pop Warner over the suicide of her son. The suit says her son, Joseph Chernach, suffered concussions in the Wisconsin-Michigan Pop Warner league from 1997 to 2005, leading to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease. Sports writer Mike DeFabo and sports editor Jon Styf discuss.
DeFabo: As a society, we're beginning to recognize the dangers of playing tackle football. It's tragic to hear stories about Junior Seau or Mike Webster. Still, to me, stories like this one make me take a step back and realize how dangerous football can be, at all levels. Seau played for 19 years. Sometimes you can convince yourself that he suffered all of his brain damage in the NFL. But Chernach was just a 25-year-old kid, who never played past high school. That's how old I am. It's scary.
Styf: And this isn't new. Boston University found CTE in the brain of an 18-year-old football player back in 2008. Yes, a high school football player. Owen Thomas, a 21-year-old Penn football player at the time, committed suicide in 2010. Then they sliced his brain apart and found CTE. The problem is that sometimes there are serious side effects. But, for a lot of players, there are not. The question is how much risk people are willing to take or allow their kids to take. As far as this suit goes, it's a stretch to think that the family will win. Proving Pop Warner was negligent is a whole different conversation than proving the NFL was when it allegedly denied and hid information it was given about the long-term impact of the game. But there continues to be plenty of good information saying your 10-to-12-year-old kids should not be playing tackle football. People don't want to hear that, but they really should listen. The day when a kid sues his parents for signing him up for tackle football at that age isn't far away. The data is out there and it's time parents start paying attention to it and stop brushing it off.
DeFabo: Like this data: Less than two weeks ago, Boston University came out with a study that former NFL players who played tackle football before 12 showed greater declines in memory and cognitive function compared to those who started playing in their teens. I just find it unnecessary to to start a kid in football so young. It's a sport that, above all else, rewards size, speed and physicality — things athletes develop in their teens. You don't need to put a helmet on as soon as you can walk to be good. Jimmy Graham played just one year of football at the University of Miami and is redefining the tight end position. Antonio Gates didn't play football at all at Kent State and went on to become a nine-time Pro Bowler.
Styf: Tom Brady started playing football as a high school freshman too. He's alright. This isn't about politics or pansiness. It's about the things we know (collisions in football are dangerous to your head long term) and the things we don't (who it will impact, how much and when). My job depends on football, in large part, and so does yours. My family eats because of football. But there's no way you'll find me allowing my son to play tackle football when he's 10, or 11, or 12. Heck, maybe they'll be just playing flag football at that age by then. That would be a good thing. But understand this isn't about hating football. I love the sport, like so many other people do. I just think we need to be smarter as a society on how and when it's played. Some days, I feel like a drug pusher with the way we help feed that appetite for football. The problem is how much we still don't know.