Risks of Tackle Football Under Review

by

Betts v. New Castle Youth Development Center (Pennsylvania)
(17-year-old suffers spinal cord injury while playing “pick-up” football at a government youth development center; the center and its employees are found immune under the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution.)

The 17-year-old plaintiff severely injured himself while attempting to make a tackle in a “pick up” tackle football game without any pads, helmets, or other safety gear. He thereafter sued the New Castle Youth Development Center (a facility that houses youths that have been adjudicated delinquent and committed to the state’s care) and several members of its staff, alleging that his rights were violated under the Eighth Amendment (prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment”) and Fourteenth Amendment (deprivation of substantive due process) of the United States Constitution. The evidence indicated that immediately after the incident, an employee of the facility asked the plaintiff to tell authorities that he was playing touch football at the time of the injury rather than tackle football. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment contending that they were immune from liability under the Eleventh Amendment and the United States District Court agreed, finding that the facility was an administrative agency “without existence apart from the Commonwealth.” As for the claims against the individual employees, the District Court ruled that there was insufficient evidence to show a “substantial risk of serious harm” and “deliberate indifference to that risk.” The court stated that the challenged behavior of allowing the youths to play tackle football without equipment “did not shock the conscience.” The plaintiff appealed and the Court of Appeal affirmed the District Court’s decision.

NOTE: In ruling against the plaintiff on the Eighth Amendment claim, the court included the following notable quotable: “Life is fraught with risk of serious harm and the sports world is no exception.” The discussion by the Court of Appeal in terms of the risk evaluation of tackle football is quite interesting. Citing past incidents of publicized spinal cord injuries, the plaintiff asserted that the risk of serious harm inherent in playing tackle football without equipment was “obvious.” However, the Court of Appeal stated that the plaintiff’s evidence shed “no light on the frequency or likelihood of such injuries” and did not mean that there was a “substantial risk.” The Court concluded that there was no “evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that serious injury is a common or likely occurrence in tackle football games.” The Court also referred to the fact that there had been no prior reported injuries as a result of tackle football games at the facility, supporting the conclusion that there could be no deliberate indifference to a serious risk on the part of the facility or its employees.

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