A class-action lawsuit against Pop Warner Little Scholars, Inc., the non-profit behind the youth football league, is moving forward. A U.S. District Court judge in California allowed the case to proceed after acknowledging the validity of the parents’ claim that the league had put kids in danger when it failed to enforce proper safety protocols. Pop Warner Little Scholars had tried to argue that there is an inherent risk to playing football and that the league can’t be held responsible. But its line of defense fell on deaf ears. Judge Philip S. Gutierrez noted it was clear that the league “misrepresented that safety was its top priority.”
According to Law360, the Pop Warner Little Scholars claimed to embrace Heads Up Football, a USA Football program that emphasizes safety via high-quality equipment, trained coaches, and new rules designed to limit injury risk. The parents, however, argued that PWLS was only pretending to be concerned about the safety of the players without actually doing anything to prevent injuries.
Judge Gutierrez agreed for the most part and while reportedly “tossing out causes of action related to California’s Unfair Competition law and Unfair Business Practices Act,” he allowed counts of negligence, fraud, fraudulent concealment, and negligent misrepresentation to proceed. Negligence, according to the law, is the “failure to behave with the level of care that someone of ordinary prudence would have exercised under the same circumstances. The behavior usually consists of actions, but can also consist of omissions when there is some duty to act.” In this case, it was a lack of action by PWLS and other youth leagues that could result in their being found negligent.
The case began last year when Kimberly Archie and Jo Cornell, two parents of former Pop Warner players who died unexpectedly, learned that their sons had suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease that’s been linked to pro football players. This is a huge win for Archie and Cornell, who are hoping to hold Pop Warner accountable for its role in their sons’ deaths.
All of this comes on the heels of a decline in youth football participation over the past few years, as more parents become aware of the risks associated with CTE and concussions. While the lawsuit is far from resolved, the fact that it’s even been allowed to move forward is big deal. And a potential warning shot aimed at youth football, which will need to make some serious changes if it wants to survive.