Editor’s Note: Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has worked as a producer and as a reporter at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She was named a 2010 Woman of the Year by Women in Sports and Events. Jones is a co-author of “Say It Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete” and CEO of the Push Marketing Group. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Roxanne Jones: There's a reason why young NFL players are retiring from the sport
She says youth football is not looking like the best option for kids; parents should know the risks
When Oakland Raiders NFL running back Maurice Jones-Drew retired recently at just 29 years old, he said his life had been focused on football for 24 years and he needed a change. It’s no wonder he wanted out. He has been playing football since he was 5 years old.
Sound too young to strap on a helmet? Not really. Jones-Drew is no different from thousands of other boys whose parents introduce them to the gridiron just a few years out of diapers.
Football is America’s favorite sport. We pride ourselves on our toughness, on our ability to get back up when we’re knocked down. What better sport is there to teach those lessons? But today, youth football is not looking like the best option.
In 2012, an estimated 225,287 children – down 9.5% since 2010 – between the ages of 5 and 14 played Pop Warner football, in which the weight class for the 5-year-olds ranges from 35 to 79 pounds. With such lightweight boys competing with children more than twice their size, it’s no wonder parents feel less inclined to put their kids in this sport.
But not too long ago, parents thought nothing of sending their children out on the football field to run around and burn up a little energy. Many parents still insist youth football is safe. What could be healthier for a boy? Certainly, it beats sitting in front of a computer all day.
That’s exactly what Debra Pyka thought when she signed up her son, Joseph Chernach, for Pop Warner football in Wisconsin, then later in Michigan, when he was 11 years old, in 1997.
If only she knew then that her son would be dead at 25. Joseph hung himself in his mother’s shed on June 7, 2012. His brain was later found to have severe CTE, a degenerative brain disease that has been linked to concussions in football. Joseph Chernach had played sports, including wrestling, pole vaulting and football most of his young life. But he spent almost four years playing Pop Warner football from ages 11 to 14.
“My son was the class comedian, loved school, always fun to be around,” Pyka told me. “But we noticed after high school Joseph changed. He got depressed, angry, paranoid and withdrew from sports and his friends. We just didn’t know why. After learning about CTE, I knew he had it even before we got the results. The symptoms were all there.”
Pyka is convinced those early days playing Pop Warner football triggered her son’s CTE. Last month, Pyka and her son’s estate filed a lawsuit against Pop Warner football for $5 million, claiming the nonprofit failed to protect its youngest players and warn them and their parents about the permanent dangers of head trauma.
The lawsuit further alleges that Pyka’s son and other children were intentionally put in danger because Pop Warner used amateur coaches with short tenures, who were never properly trained in the game of football, injury prevention, concussion or head injury identification.
So now, this mother is on a mission. She wants to stop children younger than 14 from playing tackle football in youth leagues.
“I don’t want any kids to suffer the way my son suffered, the way my family suffered. It’s devastating. Young children should not be allowed to play tackle football until they reach high school,” said Pyka.
Since filing her suit, Pyka, a registered nurse, said she’s found some solace by connecting with other parents who want to make football safer for children, but she also has received plenty of hateful emails criticizing her for allowing her son to play in the first place. Critics say that she knew what she was doing when she signed her son up to play football and some even suggest that Pyka should be charged with murder for allowing Joseph to sign up for football, Pyka told me, clearly upset.
“I didn’t sign my son up to get a brain disease,” she said. “We wanted him to play sports, to be active. We knew nothing about concussions then. It wasn’t discussed much. It’s still not talked about enough today. Should we all be arrested for letting our kids play football?”
Clearly, the lawsuit faces obstacles, especially since Chernach did play other sports and it may be hard to prove the CTE was triggered by injuries suffered while playing for Pop Warner. But Pyka and her attorney, Gordon Johnson, at the Brain Injury Law Group, which is representing Chernach’s estate, insist this case is not just about winning. They are going after the economics of youth football leagues. And if they win the lawsuit it may be less possible for those leagues to buy the insurance policies that allow very young children to play tackle football.
“We have to prove that Pop Warner was a substantial factor in him getting it [CTE], and we knew from research that playing under 12 is when you’re most vulnerable,” Johnson told media when he filed the suit. “The airing of these issues will benefit everybody,” he added.
Jon Butler, executive director of Pop Warner Little Scholars Inc., told me on Thursday via email: “Pop Warner has been, and will continue to be, at the forefront of addressing player safety. … 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.”
Still, when the lawyer talk is done, Debra Pyka won’t get her son back. And amazingly, she did not sound bitter. And she’s not out to end football. But “a 5-year-old playing football, it’s ridiculous to have them out there banging their brains around.”
Some good has come out of all this, said Pkya. More people are talking about CTE. She said it’s important that parents listen closely to NFLers like 24-year-old Chris Borland, the San Francisco 49ers linebacker who retired this week after just one season. Borland said he quit because he was afraid of brain injuries. He understands how his decision may affect parents and he has a message:
” Parents … if you weigh the risk and decide this is something you want to partake in. … It’s a free country. … But If I could relay a message to kids and their parents it would be twofold: Number one: make an informed decision. And number two: Don’t play through concussions. Who knows how many hits is too many?”
Considering the consequences, it just may be one of the toughest decisions a parent has to make.