LOS ANGELES—For most children and teens, playing soccer, basketball, baseball, football or participating in another athletic experience leads to a lifetime of memories. Most of the time, these are fond memories. However, in recent years, the number of children’s sports injurieshas gone up dramatically. Furthermore, in a recent report by the University of North Carolina’s National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, we learn that 1990 is the only year between 1931 and 2009 that a fatal injury did not occur at some level of high school, college or professional football (http://www.unc.edu/depts/nccsi/2010Allsport.pdf). In that nearly eighty year span, one family each year had to confront the pain of a preventable or wrongful death. Football is not the only athletic activity that leads to death or catastrophic injury, however.
In 2008, Lauren Chang was killed performing a cheerleading maneuver. Before her, in 2005, Ashley Burns also died as a direct result of a cheerleading accident (http://abcnews.go.com/Health/cheerleader-dies/story?id=4693144). For many girls, cheerleading results in paralysis, concussion, broken bones, and other impacts that are more difficult to quantify.
In 2004, 14 year-old Brittany Noffke fell while practicing a cheerleading maneuver at her Wisconsin high school. She suffered a skull fracture, serious concussion, and brain damage. The physical pain healed after several months, but Brittany continued to struggle with debilitating anxiety and depression. The family’s medical bills also contributed to their eventual bankruptcy. Brittany and her family are not alone in the suffering they endured.
Concussions for male and female athletes; ligament tears; spinal injuries; heat stroke; broken limbs and brain damage can all result from school sponsored sports, physical education classes and club activities including cheerleading and dance team participation. With the extensive information available, perhaps such injuries will begin to decrease in numbers. The efforts of certain organizations may be educating the public, the parents, the players, and the coaches involved.
Organizations like the Sports Medicine Center for Young Athletes at the Children’s Hospital of Oakland offer extensive information on how to prevent and treat child sports injuries (http://www.childrenshospitaloakland.org/healthcare/depts/sports_medicine.asp). However, the authorities have a major advantage if a personal injury suit is ever filed on behalf of a child. Even if the safety information is available, what is the motivation for school districts, youth sports leagues, and other such entities to prioritize safety? They are almost never held liable.
The Noffke case is just one such instance where the injured teen was unable to getcompensation for injuries. Her case was dismissed. Wisconsin has a Recreational Immunity Law which protected the school district. Personal injury claims related to school sports injuries have recently been dismissed in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. The legal rationale is that players accept a certain level of risk when they participate in an athletic endeavor. However, where is the line drawn? At what point does risk become negligence or reckless behavior on the part of the guardians and authorities involved? Many NFL players are trying to answer this question with a massive lawsuit against the NFL. Of course NFL players accept a certain risk when they agree to play a game and get well-compensated for it. But at what point does an organization take responsibility for protecting its players? If school districts are almost always immune from paying damages, there seems to be little legal incentive to make sure players and performers participate safely.
The vast majority of players and participants do not suffer catastrophic injuries as the result of participating in athletic events. But there are cases throughout the country of children being pushed to try more dangerous cheerleading maneuvers, hit the ball farther, and increase their speed and size to inflict greater damage on their opponents. Furthermore, the injuries are happening to younger and younger children.
The recent lawsuit filed on behalf of NFL players has brought increased scrutiny to the role of concussions in professional football. However, concussions are a significant problem in every contact sport and cheerleading. Furthermore, if a teen or young child suffers a concussion and continues to play in a game, the long term damage can be catastrophic. The American College of Sports Medicine and other concerned organizations report that each year 60, 000 high school athletes sustain a concussion (http://www.npr.org/2011/02/02/133437361/doctors-throw-flags-on-high-school-concussions). For pre-teens, the numbers may not be as high but the damage to a young brain can be even worse because their brains are still developing. Thankfully, national awareness may be leading to change.
30 states have laws that make coaches bench players who have been injured or may have suffered a concussion. Now that there are laws specifically designed to protect young players, violations of those laws may lead to successful lawsuits that do a better job of holding authorities liable. No doubt, these lawsuits are on the horizon for a wide-variety of reasons. But one of the reasons may be that in a culture obsessed with winning, the short-term satisfaction of victory may lead to catastrophic injury if safety is not a priority. With increased emphasis on better performance, greater achievement, and winning at all costs, the team may win but individual children will continue to suffer.