MADISON, Wis. (CN) – A 25-year-old with dementia would not have killed himself had his youth football league been more proactive about safety, his mother claims in court.
“At the time of his death, Joseph Chernach’s mental state had reached the point that he was no longer able to control the impulse to kill himself,” the Feb. 5 federal complaint against Pop Warner Little Scholars states. “Joseph Chernach’s suicide was the ‘natural and probable consequence’ of the brain damaged [sic] he suffered playing football.”
Chernach, who hanged himself in 2012, allegedly suffered repeated head trauma during football games he played for Pop Warner beginning at age 11.
This trauma eventually resulted in dementia pugilistica, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition that can be diagnosed only in an autopsy.
Chernach’s mother, Debra Pyka, is represented in court by Gordon Johnson with Brain Injury Law Group SC of Sheboygan. She is seeking $5 million, including punitive damages, from the league, the Pop Warner Foundation and Lexington Insurance Co.
Johnson noted in an interview that he brought the suit under the doctrine of strict liability, meaning that he can prevail by showing that youth football was one of the causes of Chernach’s suicide.
“If strict liability precedent is established, I think the sport goes away for children,” Johnson said. “It’ll be difficult for organizations to continue to sponsor such a dangerous sport.”
The 27-page complaint begins with three pages detailing the war-like nature of football, pointing to terms like “sacking,” “won in the trenches” and “aerial attack,” used to describe the game and specific plays borrowed from the language of warfare.
The complaint even quotes Vince Lombardi, the legendary Green Bay Packers coach for whom the Super Bowl trophy is named, as saying: “I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious” (emphasis in complaint).
Young football players emulate the professionals who play for coaches like Lombardi, to their unwitting detriment, according to the complaint.
“They have no appreciation that they are doing anything other than play,” the complaint states. “While they might grasp the concept of a scraped knee, they have no appreciation of the catastrophic lifetime risks that engaging in this combative sports (sic) involves.”
Additionally, unlike in similar lawsuits against the National Football League, the children are not receiving monetary benefits or employment in playing for Pop Warner, Johnson said.
“There’s no cost-benefit analysis in favor of having these children engage in this dangerous activity,” Johnson said.
Pop Warner, based in Pennsylvania with leagues around the country, serves about 325,000 children, some as young as 5 and as light as 35 pounds, according to its website.
Chernach played for a Pop Warner league serving Michigan and Wisconsin from 1997 to 2000, the complaint states, during which time he suffered multiple concussions that were never diagnosed.
“Prior to reaching the age of 19, Joseph Chernach was an extraordinary individual, a good student, an outstanding athlete and family member,” the complaint states.
Beginning his sophomore year of college, Chernach’s “cognition, behavior and mood” changed as his CTE began to manifest, according to the complaint.
“His behavior became increasing[ly] bizarre,” the complaint states. “From that point on, his mood became progressively depressed and ultimately paranoid, distrusting his closest friends and family.”
Chernach’s cognitive functions allegedly declined from that point until his death.
The National Office of Pop Warner called Chernach’s death a tragedy but pointed out that he participated in athletics as a teen as well.
“While there is incredible sadness in this story, we question the merits of singling out four years of youth football amid a career of sports that lasted through high school,” the organization said in a statement.
As for reform, Pop Warner noted that it is at “the forefront of addressing player safety.”
“We have implemented significant rule changes and medical protocols as we constantly look at how to make the game as safe as possible for children,” Pop Warner said. “In addition, we emphasize heightened coaching and parent education in carrying out these safety measures.”
Pop Warner announced new safety regulations for the 2012 season six days after Chernach’s suicide, according to its website, making it the first youth-football organization to limit the amount of contact drills to one-third of practice time.
In addition, “no full speed head-on blocking or tackling drills in which the players line up more than 3 yards apart are permitted,” the website states.
It also banned “intentional head-to-head contact.”
Pop Warner announced in 2013 a partnership with “Heads Up Football,” which it says “provides a better, safer way to teach and play the game.” The goal is to teach players to keep their heads out of “the line of contact” and train coaches on “the fundamentals of safety,” according to its website.
All Pop Warner coaches must complete annual certifications through the program, the website states.
But Chernach’s mother says the organization should have known the risks 15 years earlier.
“No later than 1997, it was a known risk that children playing tackle football with helmets could suffer brain damage and other injuries,” the complaint states.
Pop Warner’s new safety regulations will not eliminate the potential harm, according to the complaint.
“Children playing tackle football is so ultrahazardous that no amount of due care can eliminate the risk of probable injury, only the extent of it,” the complaint states.
Attorney Johnson also stressed the importance of considering the limitations of training coaches and players effectively.
“I played football,” he said. “Tackling keeping your head up is a very difficult thing to do,” and amateur coaches cannot be trained in safe techniques during the limited course required by Pop Warner.
Ideally, Johnson said, this case will end tackle football for children under 18 who cannot consent to taking the risk of brain injury.
Josh Pruce of Pop Warner said the company would not comment on pending litigation.
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