Friday, November 8, 2013
Pop Warner sued for 'head-first' tackling technique
Story originally appeared on USA Today.
A California youth was left paralyzed after a head-first tackle, a technique coaches taught
The family of a Pop Warner youth football player, paralyzed making a tackle during a 2011 game, filed suit in California this week alleging he was taught an unsafe "head-first" technique by his coaches and that the Pop Warner organization and others failed to ensure the coaches complied with rules banning such tackling.
Donnovan Hill was 13 at the time of his injury as a member of the Lakewood (Calif.) Black Lancers, a Pop Warner group about 20 miles south of Los Angeles.
"As Donnovan approached contact with his opponent, he dropped his head down, kept his arms at his side and initiated the tackle head-first," as stated in the lawsuit filed in Superior Court of California. "Upon contact with the opposing player, Donnovan immediately went limp and dropped to the field unmoving."
The suit says Hill sustained a "catastrophic spinal cord injury" and that he has minimal use of his arms and no movement from the chest down, because of tackling as he was taught -- head first.
"It's an unbelievable story about how not to run a football program," says Rob Carey, a Phoenix attorney representing the plaintiffs. "And the really sad part is when you look at Pop Warner, they market themselves as safety, safety, safety."
Jon Butler, executive director of Pop Warner, declined comment, which he said is the organization's stance on all litigation.
In August, Pop Warner announced it is joining the Heads Up Football program being rolled out nationally this year by USA Football, a national youth football governing body which receives NFL funding. Pop Warner said the plan is for all of its 1,300 associations to go through Heads Up certification before the start of next season.
In Heads Up, players are taught to hit with their heads to the side.
Hill was injured in a Nov. 6, 2011, game in Laguna Hills, Calif., about 45 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
"Their coach wasn't certified. He didn't follow their own procedures and get certified on safety at regular intervals," Carey said of Salvador Hernandez, head coach of Hill's team in 2011. "They (Pop Warner) didn't supervise him to make sure he is teaching proper tackling techniques. And the consequence is ... that Donnovan Hill is now quadriplegic."
The lawsuit says the 2011 Pop Warner rules prohibited "face tackling" or "spearing" techniques and that any coaches teaching such techniques should be dismissed following a hearing.
"It's not so much about not being certified," Carey said. "That can happen. ... But what should never happen is you've got an array of coaches, assistant coaches, on the sideline, multiple times, watching Donovan 'face tackle,' and no one stops it. That should never happen. ... They should ensure the rules are being followed."
The suit says game videos show Hill "consistently tackled head-first" throughout the 2011 season. It alleges the coaches observed this repeatedly in practices and games without correcting or reprimanding it. And during one drill, the suit alleges, Hill said he was concerned he might be hurt tackling head first -- and a coach "chastised" him for "whining."
Pop Warner, the Langhorne, Pa.-based group which had about 275,000 youngsters in its football program nationally last season, is a defendant, as is the Orange Empire Conference; Lakewood Pop Warner; Hernandez; four assistant coaches; Roberto Carlos Gonzales, president and athletic director of Lakewood Pop Warner in 2011, and Robert Espinosa, an assistant commissioner of the Orange Empire Conference in 2011. The suit also includes the spouses as defendants.
The suit says Hill does not have transportation to accommodate his injuries and that his life expectancy is diminished. Hill, 15, and his mother, Crystal Dixon, seek unspecified damages, including compensation to care for Hill for the rest of his life.
"I'm sure Donovan himself doesn't really relish the idea of suing his coaches," Carey said. "But it becomes an issue of insurance and compensability and making sure that Donovan is going to be taken care of."