Will injured children sue the Catholic Church for youth football?

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CINCINNATI – Denny Doyle has been a committed Catholic and lifelong football fan, and he saw little conflict between the two until his grandson was old enough to play football. It was then that he started reading about the risks football poses to young boys, whose brains are particularly vulnerable to concussions. Much to Doyle’s relief, his grandson opted for flag football.

But Doyle with his eyes open saw a bigger problem: The Roman Catholic Church he loved was endangering tens of thousands of other boys by sponsoring the Catholic Youth Organization, or CYO, which runs football leagues. in all the countries.

A former lawyer, Doyle feared the church could be sued if a player suffered catastrophic brain injury on the pitch or developed neurological or cognitive problems years later. After all, the church was committed to protecting children from harm after the child abuse scandals that led to billions of dollars in settlements.

Ultimately, Doyle thought, an enterprising plaintiff lawyer would argue that the church still exposed children to damage on the football field.

So Doyle made it his mission to get the church out of the tackle football business.

“Nothing like this upsets my faith because my faith transcends Catholicism and my own relationship with God,” Doyle said. “But it’s disappointing and it’s sad because I think they make a terrible mistake and they hurt children’s brains. This is the second child abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.

Doyle, 78, married with four grown children, also has nine grandchildren. He had a successful career at Chiquita Brands International, entering as General Counsel and moving up the executive ladder. Upon meeting him, you notice his deep tan (he divides his time between Cincinnati and West Palm Beach, Florida), the shock of gray hair at his crown, and the relentless intensity with which he talks about football and the Catholic Church.

As a Catholic cradle whose family foundation donated millions of dollars to Catholic causes, including Catholic secondary education and student endowments, he is an unlikely gadfly.

Doyle’s mission is also personal. He started playing football at the age of 7 and suffered concussions in elementary school, high school and college, leaving Xavier’s team after a particularly nasty blow. Doyle wondered if he might incur the same cognitive and neurological issues that NFL players have faced.

In the four years since he began lobbying church officials, Doyle has urged the Archdiocese of his hometown of Cincinnati to recognize the risks he faces. He hired a Catholic sports law professor to write notices describing the archdiocese’s legal exposure in allowing youth football to be played on his property, and sent them to church officials.

Doyle gave them a presentation in 2018 and offered to take them to Boston to visit scientists studying the links between brain disease and repeated blows to the head.

“I didn’t ask them to make commitments, only to listen,” Doyle said.

In a study conducted by researchers in Boston, athletes who started playing football before the age of 12 were at greater risk for behavioral and cognitive problems later in life than those who started playing after the age of 12.

Church officials politely but firmly declined Doyle’s invitation. The church said it stopped administering CYO sports decades ago and the church parishes were asked to run the leagues.

Doyle said the Archdiocese is still in danger because the CYO leagues often play their games in parish schools owned by the church. The archdiocese declined to comment.

The archdiocese, he said, is reluctant to regulate the CYO leagues because football is popular in Ohio and it doesn’t want to alienate young parishioners.

“With abortion, the church is saying that whenever a life is at stake, we are doing our best to protect the life,” Doyle said. “They hang themselves over there to protect life, but when someone says they should protect a life from brain damage, they don’t want to look.”

Tim Neary, a historian at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island, who wrote on CYO, agreed that dioceses are in conflict because many parishioners love football. But “from a legal point of view, a more protective position would make sense,” he said. “There is this movement, this real fear of head trauma, and it is doubly present in the minds of dioceses, which are in financial difficulty.

Doyle took no pleasure in fighting football in this hotbed of the sport. Some of his neighbors who are volunteer coaches quietly admit that they have concerns about the safety of the game. But they don’t speak up because they fear the cash-strapped leagues will close if they have to spend more on it. training, equipment and injury monitoring.

Unable to progress in Cincinnati, Doyle donated to the Concussion Legacy Foundation to pay for videos promoting flag football to children under 14. and offered to transport them to Boston as well. Two officials from the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference accepted his invitation.

Sean McAleer, the education director at the conference, said that during his two-night trip to Boston, he discovered youth football and the increased risk of subsequent cognitive problems.

“We never thought it would have everlasting effects on children,” he said. “Anything that can cause injury to young people, we want to protect children. “

McAleer said some of his state’s dioceses have abandoned tackle football due to liability, but those CYO programs still offering the sport now teach players to avoid direct contact. Coaches, he added, are trained to identify a concussion on the court.

Yet some dioceses are taking more control over their youth sports programs, not less. In Cleveland, Ohio’s largest diocese, CYO is run by a full-time staff who manages 11 athletic programs for 20,000 children, and has a set of charters and regulations for liability and legal protections. He introduced seven-on-seven football to make it easier for young players to play and drastically reduced the number of contacts in practice.

The diocese is also working with the Sports Medicine Center at Akron Children’s Hospital to track concussions and other injuries. University Hospitals Sports Medicine, which operates throughout Northeast Ohio, provides experts to teach coaches about the prevention and treatment of injuries, including concussions.

Dobie Moser, director of CYO for Catholic Charities in Cleveland, hopes the additional measures will strengthen the tackle football program, which has seen a 42% drop among seventh-graders and a 58% drop among eighth-graders. year from 2014 to 2019. The flag football program during the same period has grown rapidly.

“CYO is not immune: the trends and problems in football affect us a lot, too,” Moser said. “We are not blindly optimistic that what we are doing will reverse these trends. “

All volunteer coaches must take courses in basic medicine and sports education. Football coaches are also required to attend a nine-hour Football Safety Course to get coaches to stop using outdated fighting methods they learned growing up, when head injuries were less taken in the past. serious.

“CYO’s biggest asset is the quality of the coaches,” said Moser. “The biggest risk is the quality of the coaches. “

A group of coaches met on a Saturday in July 2019 at Lake Catholic High School in Mentor, Ohio, about 30 minutes outside of Cleveland. Marty Gibbons, a former student and former varsity player, spoke to three dozen volunteer coaches about new tackling techniques that focus on using the shoulder to minimize the risk of head and neck injuries.

“Everyone says football is going to go away so we have to adapt,” Gibbons said. “At the end of the day, you are responsible, so take care of your players.”

Tim Tyrrell, the football coach at Archbishop Hoban High School in Akron, Ohio, told a group of 20 volunteer coaches at another training session that the decline in the number of Catholic schools and the lack of National standards for soccer education have pushed players to other sports and better organized leagues.

“It hurts a bit because it takes kids away from sports,” he said.

Despite the slow progress in conveying his message, Doyle said he will continue to get his message across to the church because the risks are so great.

“You are now going through a massive child abuse litigation that you have covered up, so you must view this issue as a church as you would have liked to have looked at the child abuse issue when it was first reported. times, ”Doyle said. “You are a steward of the children and, in retrospect, you have caused tremendous damage. I hope they will look at this issue through the lens of what happened.


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