Ep. 2: ‘Civil rights on behalf of kids’

Kimberly Archie was already an advocate for child safety in sports when she lost her son Paul in a motorcycle accident. But when her fears were confirmed and it turned out that Paul had brain damage as a result of playing youth football, she knew she had to do more.

You can listen to her story above, or download and subscribe to Razed Sports on your favorite podcast app.

NOTE: If you prefer to read, I’ve included the script below …

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Episode 2: ‘Civil rights, on behalf of kids’

Kimberly Archie: “Kids are not mini-adults. You can’t just take an adult helmet and scale it down in size and make it a few ounces lighter and say ‘hey well it’s for kids.’ No it’s not. Because kids are not mini-adults in any form or fashion and to treat them as such is really egregious and bad on us as a society. That’s why I constantly say America loves sports, but we need to love kids just as much.”

INTRO

Episode 2: “Civil rights, on behalf of kids”

Part 1: Paul’s story

I want to begin this episode by reading a portion of a story — written by Zach Helfand of the Los Angeles Times, and published on August 12, 2016.

On the last day of his life, Paul Bright clocked out of work at 6 p.m., pulled on a helmet and straddled his freshly renovated motorcycle. As the parking lot gate rattled open, he whacked the kickstand, squeezed the throttle until the engine rumbled and peeled away.

After a long day, he was ready to unwind and enjoy the last hours of Labor Day at his apartment in Canoga Park with his girlfriend and his fluffy white dog, Angel.

Paul relished having his own place, which he shared with a roommate. After high school, he’d drifted, directionless. But by 24, he’d settled into a job he loved, catering film sets. He delighted in satisfying celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez, Ice Cube and, a personal favorite, Blake Shelton, whose songs Paul occasionally crooned while in the kitchen.

The bike he’d found on Craigslist about 10 months earlier. It was a 1994 Honda CBR600, a clunker he’d tooled up until it was sleek and zippy enough to buzz across the city — which he did often, to the distress of his friends and family.

Heading west, only two miles from his apartment, Paul rolled to a stop at a traffic light on Sherman Way in Reseda, next to a doughnut shop and a 7-Eleven. The setting sun gleamed in his eyes.

The speed limit was 35 mph, but when the light changed, he buzzed past one driver, then another, who estimated Paul was going 60 mph and gaining speed.

Ahead, an Acura burst through a stop sign. Witnesses heard the squeal of brakes, then shattered glass.

His mother got the call that September night in 2014.

Paul had died, she was told, in a traffic collision. The official cause of death: blunt force trauma.

She thought there was a good chance it was something else.

Imagine getting that call. How would you react? How would you deal with the tragedy in the moment?

Kimberly Archie did what I imagine most of us what do. — She stayed up and thought, about her son Paul, about life, about how and why this could happen to him. But perhaps unlike most people, Archie’s thoughts also went somewhere else. You see Kimberly had a perspective that — I don’t want to say prepared her because nobody can prepare for such things — but it led her to react in a unique way when she received the call from the police that night.

You see, Kimberly had long fought — and continues to fight — to improve safety measures in youth sports. She is the founder of the National Cheer Safety Foundation and worked with San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher to push for a bill recognizing cheerleading as a sport in the state of California, and it became a law in 2015. She has also worked as a consultant on landmark legal cases, including the NFL brain injury litigation and a US soccer case that resulted in a ban on headers for children under the age of 11.

So it only made sense that on that terrible night Kimberly’s mind would go somewhere most of ours perhaps wouldn’t, that it would grab onto a particular thread and refuse to let go. It tugged at it and slowly, but surely, what unraveled was something that — kind of made sense to her — but also seemed like a complete leap at the same time — that something was the idea that her son’s death was related to brain damage he had suffered from years of playing football.

Kimberly Archie: “A couple of things that happened that night, and I got the call late at night and did not sleep at all, so I had an entire night of just you know trying to put the pieces together and understand what happened. I thought about when Junior Seau drove off the cliff previous to his suicide and some other incidences with NFL players who had some reckless driving, reckless behavior scenarios and later either committed suicide or died of other causes and had CTE.”

But how did this relate to Paul, who hadn’t played football in nine years? He was a kind and thoughtful young man, there was nothing on the surface at least that really seemed like a major concern. Yes, he had at times lacked direction, at times struggled to find a place in the world, and at times he behaved a bit recklessly. That sounds like a description of pretty much any 24-year-old.

But to Kimberly, there were, in hindsight, some clues. The first was that she had noticed behavioral changes in her son. Perhaps they weren’t drastic enough to grab attention in the moment, but in looking back, they were obvious. When she thought about those changes, and about what kind of kid Paul had been growing up, she just could not buy the notion that he would take the risks he did on that motorcycle that evening. Not because of concern for his own safety, but for the others on the road.

Kimberly Archie: “The thing about Paul’s death that really stood out to me, people may not realize, they just hear motorcycle wreck, was the fact that he hit a woman driving with her kids in the car. Had Paul been on let’s say a racetrack or something and he was driving fast, maybe I wouldn’t have thought anything of it, but the fact that he could hurt or harm other people, it really stuck with me. Because of my three kids he was the most sensitive — from the time he was a little boy until his death — about the elderly, about kids, about animals, about people who are homeless. He was just so sensitive. He would open the door to let a fly out rather than kill it. So, for me to think that he would be so reckless, not to hurt himself but to endanger others, I couldn’t believe that he was thinking straight.”

In that night of reflection, there was another thing that Kimberly thought of — Paul had played a lot of football and taken a lot of hits. Again, on the surface it wasn’t obvious. At the time of his death, Paul hadn’t played a snap in nearly a decade. He’d barely played in high school at all. But nonetheless he did have a lot of football miles on his body — nine years in the sport as a youth, and most of it played on the line. She thought about all of the hits he had taken, about how he’d often complained about the pain in his knees and in his back. She thought about all of that and came to the logical conclusion that it was possible, maybe even likely, that Paul’s brain had also been injured.

Kimberly Archie: “And it made me really look back at the nine years of football that he played and that he had back and knee problems from all the hits. It just seemed logical that how would his brain just be sitting in there all pristine, and his knees and back suffered from the hits.”

When the sun came up the next morning, Kimberly reached out to Dr. Bennet Omalu and to Boston University, two of the forefront experts and researchers on chronic traumatic encephalopathy — CTE. She had Paul’s brain sent to BU for testing, and the results would confirm her fears — Paul, who was only 24 and hadn’t played football in nine years, had CTE.

Kimberly Archie: “The results were shocking. I recently shared with my brother, who’s a former F-18 pilot in the Navy, so he knows a little bit about risky behavior, and I said ‘you know when I look at his brain autopsy, I, to this day, cry every time I read it, because I can’t believe he could walk around with that kind of brain damage.

“People just think CTE, they don’t realize there’s all these different aspects of the brain. Like he had a thin corpus callosum, which is where the left and right hemisphere connect, which makes sense when you’re thinking about wear and tear on the brain with repetitive hits, where it would connect between the left and right would be a spot of contention as well. Just the different aspects of the brain damage, it’s mind-blowing that he did as well as he did do considering how long he lived with it. I mean, CTE is advanced brain damage, so he didn’t wake one day with CTE, he had brain damage that happened when he was playing as a young kid and it advanced over the years, so he suffered for many years — at least a decade — with brain dysfunction, and nobody knew.”

And if Paul could be affected at 24, having not played in nearly a decade, what would that have meant for his future? CTE is a progressive degenerative disease — meaning the brain tissue continues to degenerate long after the trauma stops occurring. Had Paul lived, what would he have had in store for himself?

Kimberly Archie: “We thought in 2008 that my three kids who all played sports that we had made it through OK, that we weren’t going to be one of those families. We had no idea that, at that time, it was too late for Paul, that the wheels had already been set in motion and there was no stopping it. Even if Paul had lived beyond the day that he died, he only would have continued to suffer. People make crazy comments about his death, I just shake my head because he was suffering tremendously already at 24, and if you look at people like Greg Ploetz, who was a college football player, who died of stage 4 CTE — dementia symptoms — there are home videos of the last six months of his life, that would have been Paul’s future had he not been affected by brain damage and had reckless behavior that led to his death. He would have just continued to suffer until he drooled on himself and didn’t recognize anybody. And when would that have happened, 35–40? Because he was already in motion at 24.”

As noted before, Kimberly Archie was an activist well before the death of her son. It really started in 2003 and it had nothing to do with football. Her daughter was injured while practicing back hand springs with her high school sideline cheer team, suffering a double compound fracture. It made her think about things, about how kids in sports are often asked to do things with very little oversite of the coaches and how their training methods are managed. She also became puzzled as to why things were set up this way, and why parents put so much faith in the coaches and the organizations running the sports.

Kimberly Archie: “And I happened to be there writing the check — as parents do for these types of things — when it happened. They didn’t have an emergency plan. I used a piece of carpet to use a sling and I drove her to the ER and so that’s what I sort of call my introduction into the lack of child rights in sports and why I think this is another wave of civil rights on behalf of kids, in a very protective part of American society, which is athletics.”

Kimberly didn’t understand why nobody was looking after the kids, why there was such a scarcity of rules in place. And while some sports like gymnastics had elaborate oversight of age-based progressions, others like cheerleading and football, didn’t really have any. Athletes were simply expected to get their physicals, to sign their waivers and get busy with training, practicing and competing.

Kimberly Archie: “Yeah, football and cheerleading. I often call them America’s Homecoming King and Queen in sports. They’re just a real reflection of American society in a number of ways, and our, the whole idea that each person should have their individual accountability but as a systemic issue we don’t require football and cheerleading to follow some of the other guidelines of sports that came from other countries like gymnastics, which really is what competitive cheer is, is acrobatics and tumbling. And while gymnastics has these very elaborate progressions, level 1–10 with age and oversight of the skill, football and cheerleading are basically sort of whatever the local coaches are doing, and the risk management is so minimal that even when parents go and make suggestions or inquire about how their kids get hurt, we’re often told that they’re following all the rules, but there really aren’t that many rules.”

As noted earlier, Kimberly had done a lot of work to improve safety in cheerleading and soccer. And her work on the NFL concussion case brought her deep into that sport as well. She also worked as a consultant on the first lawsuit against the youth football organization Pop Warner, which was brought by Debbie Pyka and settled in the spring of 2016. Pyka introduced Archie to Jo Cornell, whose son Tyler took his own life in 2014. Like Paul, Tyler had played youth football and like Paul, Tyler had been diagnosed with CTE.

Archie and Cornell launched their own lawsuit against Pop Warner, alleging several different counts including false advertising, fraud and fraudulent business practices, basically focusing their argument around a claim that Pop Warner twisted the truth regarding its commitment to safety. Last fall, Judge Philip Gutierrez rejected Pop Warner’s request to dismiss the case. In his ruling that the case could proceed, he wrote that the parents should be able to allege that Pop Warner, “misrepresented that safety was its top priority, with coaches trained in head injuries, equipment that afforded the best protection, and rules and procedures designed to protect children from injury — all with the knowledge that none of this was true, to boost the number of Pop Warner participants.”

Kimberly Archie: “I think the biggest thing as parents is that we thought that the helmets were made for our kids. We had no idea when we saw the little stickers on the helmets that said ‘meets standard’ that there really wasn’t a standard for kids. And we also were told that the hits were really benign and when you look at the long-term ramifications of accumulative trauma, even with adults in the work place or — and easier example for people to understand is pitching in baseball. We’ve known for decades that they have to count and limit pitches for kids in Little League but we thought they could take as many hits as we wanted (laughs). It’s not very logical and when you look at the weight of these helmets, because there were not standards for kids and still are not today, that weight even made the impact of these hits even more substantial.”

No trial date has been set as of this recording, but as the case slogs through the legal process, Archie has been busy on other fronts, including her initial support of an effort in California to ban tackle football for children. The legislation, called the “Safe Football Act” was co-sponsored by Gonzalez Fletcher and Sacramento Assemblyman Kevin McCarty last winter. Initially it aimed to ban the sport before high school, but was later amended to focus on players under the age of 12. But after failing to gain support on the committee level, it was shelved. Similar efforts have been introduced in Illinois, New York, New Jersey and Maryland. None of them have gone very far, and Kimberly Archie thinks she knows why. She’s says it’s been a case of bad strategy.

Kimberly Archie: “The same thing that happened in California has happened in other states and that’s that the strategy of why this bill is important and why constituents should be supporting it and why lawmakers who are on committees or later would be for the full vote would vote for it, they were just given a bunch of erroneous information that made it really easy for the opponents to convince people that it was all crazy. Even people like Jo and I, we’re not going to support a bill that’s telling people that if you start playing football after 11 you have a 50 percent less chance of brain damage. That doesn’t even make sense. So the focus on CTE only and a couple of new biased studies, that’s, you know, it was just bad political strategy, plain and simple.

I’m not very popular with anybody for having that opinion but I don’t really care. Because it is what it is. You can’t get a controversial bill passed that’s gonna change a huge part of American society if you don’t build your house on solid ground. It was built on quicksand. It was bound to cave in from the get-go.”

So Kimberly isn’t about to sit around and wait for game-changing legislation from politicians. She’s not sitting around and waiting at all. In addition to her lawsuit against Pop Warner and her continuous public activism on the topic, she’s also planning to take on youth football from another angle, pushing the California attorney general and state lawmakers to look into the helmets worn by youth players. She doesn’t think Pop Warner, helmet maker Riddell, or the body that regulates youth football equipment — called the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment — have done the job on this topic.

Kimberly Archie: “What’s going on here? If you’re looking at car manufacturers for their ignition switches and those types of things, why aren’t we looking at these helmets that have been admitted are not made specifically for kids. That we know as a matter of physics and mathematics increase the risk and that we have kids dying on the playing field while wearing these helmets and we have kids that are dying later on from accumulative trauma that’s left them with brain damage and some of them CTE?

Where is the investigation into this? California has a very specific law, it’s California penal code 387, that says that manufacturers, companies, cannot introduce known defective products into California commerce that cause great bodily harm. Well this is all spelled out that this is happening. So what’s going on? I think that’s the next step, looking at the state Attorney General and state lawmakers to start looking at that issues as well as congressional leaders, too.”

In Kimberly’s mind, the fight to regulate youth football has been focused too much on emotion and on dubious statistics. She prefers logic. That’s always been her favorite weapon in the fight for child safety in sports. That’s what she’s used in her role as a legal advisor and researcher and it’s what she prefers to use as an activist as well. And it’s a difficult thing sometimes, because this isn’t necessarily the most logical of issues, but an emotional one.

Think about it. Who is logical about choosing their favorite sport, or their favorite sports team? Who is logical when they play that sport, or watch that sport? It’s all based on emotion — that’s why we love sports. That’s also why we’re so protective of it.

So it only stands to reason that both sides of the argument regarding the safety of youth football would at times lack logic — and that Kimberly would face some emotional backlash when fighting for change. All you have to do is scroll through her twitter feed to see that. She’s called names, told she doesn’t know anything about football, labeled a flaming liberal who wants every kid to get a participation trophy. And get this … she’s even been accused of trying to profit from her son’s death.

The thing is, Kimberly is none of those things. She’s leans conservative in a lot of areas — politically, in child-rearing and more. And the thing is she toally appreciates football and the values athletes gain from participating. She says she can always spot an ex-football player in the work setting because they tend to be the best team players. And she says that’s why she didn’t push back when Paul’s father signed him up for the sport.

Kimberly Archie: “I will say that I can see why people think football is special and I know it’s done a lot for some of my friends that played at the professional level and I still have guys who’ll tell me they’d do it all over again. And one in particular was surprised when he shared that with me and I didn’t sort of beat him down for it. He said it shocked him that I understood why he’d say that. I say when you know better you do better. But it’s different with yourself than it is per se with your kids. We’re a lot more cautious with our children then we’d even be with ourselves.

So I think, translating that to being a parent and wanting to protect your kid, you know let’s say that your kid doesn’t get CTE like my son did and Jo’s son, but, would you want them to have a diminished mental capacity in any way? I don’t think most parents would say yes to that.”

And so that’s what it comes down to for Kimberly Archie. It’s not a fight to end the sport, it’s a fight to protect children who aren’t able to understand its dangers. It’s an effort to enact age-appropriate modifications just like there already are for baseball, soccer, gymnastics and other sports.

Kimberly Archie: “I don’t think we’re going to end the greatness of America if kids play flag football until they’re old enough to be able to understand the risks, so the equipment has a more viable option of being able to be made specifically for them. So limiting hits and having a hit count, and making helmets for kids and having kids wait until high school to play and playing a year of rookie tackle to transition, that’s not going to ruin football. When we took headers out of soccer in litigation with U.S. Soccer, they didn’t go ‘oh my God, soccer’s doomed because kids can’t head the ball.’

Now I hear ‘flag football’s not real football’. Well, cause that’s how you look at it. If you were raised that way and never knew the difference, if you lived in a time period where kids played flag and then played rookie tackle and then played the real man’s game, you’d never call it the real man’s game, you’d just say ‘they’re playing flag and then rookie tackle and now they’re playing tackle’ because those are age-appropriate games for kids to play.’

The kids aren’t mini-adults. The United Nations and the World Health Organization did a huge study on why kids aren’t mini-adults, physically, psychologically, you know, the entire person as a whole. Kids are not mini-adults. You can’t just take an adult helmet and scale it down in size and make it a few ounces lighter and say ‘hey well it’s for kids.’ No it’s not. Cuz kids are not mini-adults in any form or fashion and to treat them as such is really egregious and bad on us as a society.

That’s why I constantly say America loves sports, but we need to love kids just as much. And notice I’m not saying ‘boo bad sports or boo, whatever.’ No I’m just saying can we elevate kids to love kids as much as we love games and competition and sport?”

So where do we go from here? Do we try to improve the awareness of coaches? Do we try to improve the helmets and equipment? Do we try to improve tackling techniques, if that is even possible?

Or do we need to try a little harder to love children as much as we love sports? Do we need to go all in and enact age limits on tackle football? One thing is for certain, Kimberly Archie is far from finished fighting to make the sport safer for children. She knows all too well that the potential consequences are extremely high.

OUTRO

Thank you for listening to the Razed Sports podcast. For more on this episode, including additional thoughts from Kimberly Archie on safety in youth football, go to RazedSports.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @KimberlyArchie, where she provides a steady stream of information and thoughts on the topic.

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