My colleague, Mark Ashton, was recently quoted in Mr. Ken Belson’s New York Times article addressing a Pittsburgh custody case grappling with whether a child should play football after having had three concussions before his 16th birthday. As Mark points out in the article, custody officers are unwilling to touch an issue such as contact sport participation because no one wants to be the one who provides the opportunity for a child to be hurt. I think another reason why custody officers are unwilling to deal with such an issue is a little more esoteric: how does one gauge whether one sport is better for a child than another?
Mark also wrote a blog post last July raising the issue of football as the new battleground for legal custody issues. Parents seem to be increasingly concerned about the injury potential of concussions suffered in football and the “time value” of football compared to other sports. Having played over ten years of football, I disagree with using the time value analysis to consider the benefits of football. Football is notoriously known as only being “played” for a sliver of time relative to the game clock. The “conditioning affect” of football cannot be measured that way and it leaves out the intangible aspects the sport develops such as leadership, perseverance, physical and mental discipline, and playing a team sport which relies on each individual to perform their role to the best of their ability every single play. It is an amazing sport. It is an evolving sport. As this Pittsburgh case shows, even for those who love the sport, it is not for everyone.
Which brings us back to the Times article and what some might consider a “war” on football. The concerns and raised awareness about concussions in children is no more an attack on the sport than seat belts are an attack on driving. This issue is fundamentally a health issue, with concussions serving as the context, but which could easily replaced by concerns about a torn ACL or broken leg. Olympic downhill skier Lindsey Vonn has an injury history (including a concussion) that would make an NFL linebacker cringe, but I suspect if skiing replaced football as the activity in question no one would be paying attention to this case.
The quantitative difficulty is that a concussion does not show up the same way a broken bone or torn ligament does on an MRI. If a doctor clears a child to play any sport or activity after they clear a concussion protocol, then seemingly the child is fit to play. There is no evidence to the contrary, nor is there evidence to predict how the next concussion will occur, if at all. Left out of the article are details about the second and third concussions. I would be curious to know whether they were from direct hits or glancing blows. This child’s first concussion was from being hit in the head with an aluminum baseball bat. I wonder whether the second and third were routine plays which might not have otherwise injured him. Concussions affect everyone differently and they can be progressive such that it takes less of an impact to be concussed than it did the previous time(s).
This situation becomes a legal custody issue because it has a direct consequence to the health of the child. The mother’s argument is that football represents a “status quo,” but the father’s counsel argued that the status quo changed once the second and third concussion occurred from football. A temporary ban on the child paying football was overturned and he played his junior year without any injury. The father is now prepared to go to trial for a final order on the issue.
From a legal standpoint, this situation highlights the difficulty of developing bright-line rules for some legal custody issues and why there is little precedential case law on some of these unique issues. This situation is so fact specific that permitting (or barring) participation in football in this case will likely be irrelevant to another case. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see what the trial court decides and their rationale behind their decision. Though perhaps not binding on other cases, it can be instructive as to whether the court considers the sport or the injury as the critical factor.