Calling youth football "an abnormally dangerous/ultrahazardous activity," a Wisconsin woman sued the Pop Warner organization Thursday over the suicide of her son, which she claimed was due to dementia caused by brain injuries he suffered playing tackle football beginning at age 11.
Debra Pyka of Hixton is seeking $5 million plus punitive damages, saying in a suit filed in U.S. District Court in Madison (PDF) that her son, Joseph Chernach, was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — a form of dementia — when he hanged himself in his mother's shed in June 2012 at age 25.
The suit claims Chernach suffered concussions leading to the dementia while playing in a Wisconsin-Michigan Pop Warner league from 1997 to 2000.
The suit names Pop Warner Little Scholars and the Pop Warner Foundation of Langhorne, Pennsylvania, and Lexington Insurance Company of Boston as defendants. Pop Warner and Lexington didn't answer or return calls seeking comment.
The suit was filed only eight days after Boston University researchers reported that former NFL players who played tackle football before age 12 — like Chernach — showed greater declines in memory and cognitive function when compared to peers who entered the game in their teens.
"The bottom line is that the findings are not a surprise, because there have been studies in boxers and those who participate in mixed martial arts showing that those who started under age 15 had more brain atrophy," Dr. Robert Cantu, medical director of the Sports Legacy Institute near Boston and author of "Concussions and Our Kids," told NBC News last week.
Pyka's suit makes the same connection, alleging that Chernach suffered specifically from dementia pugilistica, also known as "boxer's dementia" and "punch-drunk syndrome." It cites research it says shows that football and boxing involve similar impact forces on the human brain, saying, "The objective in both boxing and football is to the knock the opponent down."
Concussions and their long-term effects on football players have become one of the most controversial talking points surrounding the U.S.'s most popular sport. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last week found that 2 out of 5 U.S. parents would encourage their children to play a sport other than football specifically because of concerns about concussions.
Meanwhile, investigators in Ohio are looking into whether confusion from several concussions may have contributed to the suicide in November of Kosta Karageorge, a wrestler and walk-on football player at Ohio State University. The coroner ordered a special examination of Karageorge's brain because of his reported history of concussions.
Pyka's suit says Pop Warner should have known about research linking concussions to dementia and accuses it of negligently having allowed small children to play the game, hired amateur coaches and referees untrained to deal with concussions, failed to require the safest possible helmets, and failed to warn her and other parents of the risk of dementia, among other claims.
"Tackle football with helmets is a war game," the suit says. "It is not only a 'contact' sport, it is a 'combat' sport. The game of tackle football is in essence a war between combatants, where the individual player is coached to do battle against his opponent by inflicting the maximum amount of physical punishment to the enemy player."
No date has been set for a hearing.