Late last month, nearly three years after she filed a lawsuit that threatened to alter the landscape of youth football forever, Kimberly Archie arrived at the downtown Los Angeles office of the law firm Wilson Elser LLP expecting it would be one of the worst days of her life.
For years, Wilson Elser had managed to keep one of its most high-profile clients, Pop Warner Little Scholars, from ever seeing the inside of a courtroom. While most other institutions governing football dealt with some form of intense legal scrutiny, Pop Warner, the nation’s leading youth football organization, had never once faced trial in its 90-year history. Twice in 2016, Pop Warner had been brought to the edge of that legal precipice – first in California, in the case of Lakewood’s Donnovan Hill, and second, in Wisconsin. But both cases were settled out of court for undisclosed sums, halting any serious challenges before they started.
Archie, whose son Paul Bright Jr. died in a motorcycle accident in Reseda in 2014, could understand why. She’d spoken often with the grieving families at the center of those cases. Months of litigating their children’s deaths had taken a severe emotional toll. They were harassed online. Some were shunned by family and friends. Guilt already weighed heavily on their consciences, and now, strangers accused them almost daily of using their children’s deaths for personal gain.
Debbie Pyka, whose son Joseph Chernach was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease, after his suicide in 2012, described the legal process as “a daily beating,” one she had to suffer through alone. The attacks on social media became overwhelming. The case settled in March 2016, just over a year after it was filed.
“I’d never had someone tell me to go kill myself,” Pyka said. “It’s hard to take that.”
But Archie, who has long fashioned herself as a sort of civil-rights activist for youth sports, is a unique plaintiff in this regard. A Los Angeles legal consultant whose crusade began even before her son died and was diagnosed with CTE, Archie has openly welcomed the brunt of that abuse. Since filing a joint suit against Pop Warner with another mother, Jo Cornell, whose son Tyler committed suicide at age 25, Archie has embraced her role as the antagonistic face of the debate over youth football, defending herself in lengthy Twitter threads and accosting online football zealots, many of whom openly questioned the circumstances of the death of her son.
Over the past year, however, after a federal judge in Los Angeles approved their case for an unprecedented trial, Archie has felt the emotional weight of those confrontations. There were now unsettling hang-up calls on her home phone and threatening messages online. There was a defamation lawsuit filed against her and a book, published by former NFL running back and TV analyst Merril Hoge and Boston University researcher Peter Cummings, which publicly doubted her son’s CTE diagnosis. In her mind, these individual battles were all parts of a larger campaign, acting as one against her.
Finally, out of fear for her own safety, she says, Archie moved out of her home last month, putting everything in storage for the duration of the trial, which won’t begin until Jan. 14, 2020. “This has all been 10 times worse than I expected,” she said.
But nothing since her son’s death weighed on her like June 21, when she was set to be deposed in the case. Archie, who’d helped others prepare for this same situation, knew what her deposition might entail. Pop Warner’s lead attorney, Anthony Corleto, had written extensively of his doubts about CTE, even publishing his own newsletter on the subject. She figured he would try to upset her, to bait her into saying something she’d regret. All the while, the details of her son’s death would be questioned at length, forcing her to relive the worst moment of her life in vivid, crushing detail.
So, as she sat down in front of a camera, surrounded by attorneys, Archie pulled out a pack of tissues. She told herself she could get through it, that this was what Paul would want. Whenever doubt crept in before, she would read an old text from him. It was one of her favorites: “Mom, I love you,” it read. “You’re changing the world.”
For nearly seven hours, the legal limit for a single day’s deposition, attorneys for Pop Warner picked away at her every possible vulnerability. They asked her about her ex-husbands. They questioned why she didn’t get her son counseling before he died. Every question felt like a dagger. As she answered through tears, she said, it felt as if the defense attorneys wanted to “destroy” her.
“They acted as if they were entitled to victimize Kim again,” said Robert Finnerty, Archie’s lead attorney, who sat next to her during the deposition. “They somehow thought they were above reproach.”
But as Archie and Cornell’s case inches closer to trial, a legal reckoning for the institutions governing football, one that extends far beyond just Pop Warner, could soon be on the horizon. Lawsuits pertaining to CTE and traumatic brain injuries are now gaining more traction than ever. Last June, in Texas, a CTE case against the NCAA went to trial for the first time. In May, a wrongful death case in Ohio against Riddell was approved to go to trial, making it the first such CTE case to reach the discovery stage against the nation’s leading helmet manufacturer. And as more cases and more testimony pile up, questions of what duty of care America’s foremost football institutions legally owe to their players, youth or otherwise, continue to mount, leaving the future of the sport more unsettled than ever.
“We’re in a position of substantial uncertainty,” said Paul Haagen, the co-director of Duke University’s Center for Sports Law and Policy. “It’s likely that, somewhere, there’s going to be a significant judgment.”
Archie is convinced their case will be the one to open the floodgates. “This is the most important case in sports history,” she openly declares.
Needless to say, she has no intention of settling. She doesn’t mince words: “I need to make them see the inside of a courtroom.”
As her rage simmered over nearly seven hours of deposition, that resolve steeled even further. When the camera was finally off, Archie looked down at the mostly empty pack of tissues she’d brought, before turning to Corleto.
“I still have two tissues left,” she said to him, “are you sure you’re done?”
On Nov. 30, 2016, attorneys for the defense filed a motion to dismiss the case of Kimberly Archie et al vs. Pop Warner Little Scholars, Inc. The motion offered a litany of reasons why the case against the youth football organization should be thrown out, from doubting its jurisdiction in California to calling research about CTE into question to challenging Cornell joining suit on statute of limitations grounds, ignoring that CTE is a latent condition only diagnosed after death.
Paul Bright, Jr. and his mom, Kimberly Archie, Christmas, 2013. (Photo Courtesy Kimberly Archie)
But noted nearly two dozen times throughout the defense’s motion – and in other proceeding court documents – is one claim that is likely to bear particular importance in this case and others like it: That, as stated by the defense, the risk of brain injury is “inherent” to football, and Pop Warner bears “no duty to minimize that risk of brain injury.”
It’s a jarring suggestion for an organization that long claimed to hold its players’ safety in the utmost regard. In his 2015 deposition for Pyka’s case, Pop Warner executive director Jon Butler noted safety had “always been our first priority.”
“If we’re not serving our youth,” Butler said then, “why would we even want to be in existence?”
When asked to clarify what risk Pop Warner felt was “inherent” to football, a spokesman stated that “anyone who has played sports or whose children play sports understand they each have some risk of injury, whether it’s football, lacrosse, soccer, hockey, or others. We encourage the public to look at the balance of research on sports safety, not simply the findings pushed by those who oppose the sport.”
But how far does that assumption of “some risk” actually stretch? Several plaintiff attorneys who have argued such cases told the Southern California News Group that, in this regard, the institutions governing football have thus far been protected by an unusually onerous standard of negligence.
“They have to be grossly negligent to have any liability attached,” Finnerty, Archie’s attorney, says, “and that’s just silly.”
Deb Ploetz sat in a Dallas court last June, determined to challenge that vague standard. Her late husband, Greg, was a linebacker and defensive tackle at the University of Texas from 1968-1971. He never played professionally. But decades after his football career ended, his life and mind began to deteriorate. In 2009, he was diagnosed with dementia. Before long, even the most mundane tasks became impossible for him to take on alone, forcing Deb to be by his side, day and night. By May 2015, he was dead, and Boston University would later confirm what his wife long feared. His brain had been ravaged by Stage 4 CTE.
Since its inception, the NCAA, like Pop Warner, has portrayed itself as a bastion of safety, built to shield its amateur athletes from harm. Its website still proclaims, even amid a rising tide of legal challenges, it was founded in 1906 to “keep athletes safe”. In 2014, three months after Ploetz’s death, NCAA chief medical officer Dr. Brian Hainline went further, declaring in a USA Today editorial that the organization’s commitment to safety was “as strong as its ever been.”
But under legal scrutiny, the NCAA itself has previously abandoned that mission statement. In a 2013 court filing pertaining to a 2011 lawsuit filed against the NCAA by the family of deceased Frostburg State player Derek Sheely, the organization’s defense attorneys claimed the exact opposite – in a matter strikingly similar to Pop Warner’s defense.
“The NCAA denies that it has a legal duty to protect student-athletes,” the document read. But when challenged on that particular statement during his 2014 testimony during a Senate committee meeting, NCAA president Mark Emmert reversed course again, calling it “a terrible choice of words.”
“I will unequivocally state we have a clear moral obligation to make sure we do everything we can to protect and support student-athletes,” Emmert said.
Until her husband’s death, Ploetz had always assumed that to be the case. “But it’s B.S.,” she says now. After meeting Archie in Washington, D.C., during Brain Health Day, Ploetz says she had a realization. Legal recourse was the only way the NCAA would ever tell the truth about the risks of football.
So, in January 2017, she filed a lawsuit alleging that, while the NCAA had promised to protect her husband, it failed in its legal duty to warn him of the risks of brain damage inherent to the sport. The case would become the first pertaining to CTE and the NCAA to reach trial.
In a legal brief, obtained by Sports Illustrated, the NCAA made clear it would claim Ploetz “voluntarily participated in the activity of playing football and accordingly assumed the risk of injury.” Additionally, pretrial filings suggested that the NCAA planned to argue that the organization didn’t actually have enough scientific knowledge to understand the risk of long-term neurological damage at the time, while also casting doubt on the current science connecting football and CTE.
“You can’t accept a risk you don’t know about,” said Gene Egdorf, the lead plaintiff’s attorney on the case. “An inherent risk means it’s open and obvious. But how can it be open and obvious, if you’re still denying it?”
The NCAA never had to defend itself on those tangled claims. The case settled after just three days of testimony.
While some legal experts wondered if the case could have gone further – and if its impact would be tempered as a result – its landmark status was notable to the woman who filed the lawsuit in the first place. When a settlement was finally agreed upon, Ploetz was so “elated”, she said, that she unknowingly began hugging the NCAA’s lawyers.
The case had already taken its toll. “I’ve lost friends, and it affected my family,” Ploetz said. “But that’s the part where you have to be courageous.”
She never viewed the outcome as “settling”. The goal, in her mind, was always simply to reach trial.
“I wasn’t there for the money,” Ploetz said. “I was there to open the door. That’s my husband’s legacy. That’s what he did. In and of itself, that tells you that the NCAA did not win.”
When Darren Hamblin received the results of his son’s brain autopsy, he knew right away what he needed to do. He wanted Cody’s friends to understand that his brain had been damaged. He needed them to know that years of contact playing football had given Cody CTE. So Darren made a copy of the autopsy, logged onto his son’s Facebook, and posted it.
Before his death in 2016, Cody Hamblin started on Miamisburg’s varsity football team all four years of high school, playing offense and defense, rarely ever coming off the field. During that time, Darren and his wife, Heather, became inextricable members of the local football community. In spite of never playing – or even watching – football before his son was born, Darren became a co-president of the local gridiron club. Every chance he got, he stopped by practices to watch his son play.
But after posting the news of his son’s CTE diagnosis, “no one in that football community said a word,” Darren says. “They either didn’t want to acknowledge it, or they think it’s all smoke and mirrors.”
That silence cut to the heart of a debate that has raged for the better part of a decade since scientists began to link football to long-term neurological damage. At the youth level, where participation has generally plummeted, that fight has seemingly grown more contentious and divided with each passing season. Defenders of the sport question the science behind the connection between brain trauma and football and declare the sport safer than it’s ever been, echoing similar sentiments from Pop Warner, the NCAA and the NFL. For others, the evidence of a link between football and brain damage is enough to warrant legislation banning it.
From a legal perspective, this argument is still in its most nascent stages. But in the cases of Paul Bright Jr., Tyler Cornell and Cody Hamblin, the purported link between football and brain trauma is sure to be a crucial subtext in their respective legal challenges against Pop Warner and the helmet manufacturer, Riddell. And for their families, that likely means a painful relitigation of the circumstances surrounding their sons’ deaths.
Looking back now, Darren Hamblin recognizes the signs he once missed. The vacant look in his son’s eyes. The odd changes in his son’s speech. The shoplifting and the public intoxication incidents that seemed so out of character. He assumed then it was just “dumb teenager stuff,” but now, the memory of these details haunts him.
“That’s one of the things that gets to me,” he said. “I didn’t help my son.”
Cody was fishing with his grandfather over Memorial Day weekend in 2016, when he suffered a seizure. He fell out of the boat and eventually drowned in just nine feet of water.
To his father, it didn’t make sense. His son never suffered a seizure before. But the coroner, who noted that Cody bit through his tongue, confirmed that was likely the case.
A lawyer initially told Darren Hamblin there was “no way to prove that CTE caused the seizure that caused his death,” but to him, there was no other explanation. He had to understand why. Digging deeper, he found himself sickened by the relative lack of oversight – and total lack of a youth standard – for helmet manufacturers. Two years after his son’s death, he filed suit against Riddell, the company which made nearly all of the helmets Cody used as a player. Finnerty, who also represents Archie, will argue the case on his behalf.
In several motions to dismiss his case, Riddell has already tried to cast doubt on the connections that strike Hamblin as obvious. “There are no facts linking those things,” the defense states, “not between football head impacts and seizures, and not between seizures and CTE.” Elsewhere, in pretrial documents, Riddell has questioned whether Cody showed any signs of CTE at all, prior to his death. That suggestion alone can be devastating for a family still searching for answers.
“As it goes forward, I know it’s going to get uglier and uglier,” Hamblin says. There’s a sorrow in his voice as he considers what a trial might mean. Already, friends from the community that once welcomed him and his wife have stopped calling.
“We’re not getting invited to dinner parties, you know what I mean?” he says.
He understands what likely awaits. Still, he’s not sure his family is ready for those emotional scars to be reopened.
“Things are going to come out to try and make me or my son look bad,” Hamlbin continues. “It’s going to really hurt my wife and daughter. But we’re going to fight it, you know.”
“It seems like a bad way to do things,” he continues. “But nothing is going to change with Riddell if they don’t feel some pain.”
For Archie, that same fight has been ongoing since the moment her son died. In some sense, the struggle itself has become her driving purpose. Day after day, week after week, she confronts those who doubt the connection between Bright’s death and CTE, challenging them in every possible venue, refusing to take punches without delivering her own. It’s an exhausting way to live. But at this point, it’s the only life she knows.
To Archie, the details and cause of the motorcycle accident that ended her son’s life have been seared into memory, as if she’d witnessed firsthand the tragic event that now defines her. She considers his death the natural culmination of a litany of irrational, reckless behavior that he’d exhibited over his final months. If not for his accident, Archie is convinced her son, who played only one year of high school football, would’ve died from his degenerative brain disease, in one way or another.
In pretrial documents, Pop Warner has made it clear it will argue that was not the case, calling it “no more than speculation that these Plaintiffs were injured playing youth football.” The expectation, according to Finnerty, is that Pop Warner will cast doubt on whether Paul Bright Jr. or Tyler Cornell had CTE at all.
On that claim, when considered at trial, Pop Warner may have the public support of Bright’s father.
Paul Bright Sr. of Sparks, Nev., who had primary custody of his son following his divorce from Archie, told the Southern California News Group he does not believe his son had CTE. He takes issue, he said, with Archie “claiming to be a superhero mom, out there trying to help her cause using her son’s name, when, in actuality, she wasn’t there his entire childhood.”
Earlier this year, he was deposed by Pop Warner as a possible witness in the case. When asked if he would testify against his ex-wife, if asked, Bright explained: “I probably would if I needed to.”
“I just want my son to rest in peace,” he later explained.
But as an unprecedented legal fight over football and its connection to brain trauma approaches, peace, given all that’s at stake, can feel like an abstract and insurmountable notion. For Archie, it’s not an idea she considers much. She thinks of the zealots on social media, disrespecting her son. She thinks of Debbie Pyka and Deb Ploetz and others who suffered for only an incomplete resolution to the grief football caused their families. The burden they carried, she believes, is now hers to shoulder.
“This is for my son, to fight for him,” she says through tears. But the break in her hard exterior is only temporary. The fight she’s been priming for, against football’s foremost institutions, still awaits.
“It’s been a living hell. But I’d do it all over again.”