Who’s to Blame for High Schooler’s Football Injury?

Kacey Strough

Kacey Strough

The details surrounding high schooler Kacey Strough’s football-related brain injury are tragic. So many things happened to the student that parents and the public never want to see happen to any of our children.

But who is to blame? We all need to think through the answer to that question.

Strough, who lived with his grandmother, was a 16-year-old freshman in Bedford, Iowa, when he first suited up for the high school football team in October 2012. Today, at age 18, he has suffered permanent brain damage, is unable to walk, and uses a wheelchair.

Shortly after he took to the field as a rookie on the Bedford High team, Strough was bullied by fellow teammates, who repeatedly threw footballs at his head from six feet away. Soon after that, Strough began complaining that he was experiencing headaches and double vision. He went to the school nurse to report his symptoms. The youth continued to participate in football practice.

What nobody, not even Strough and his family, knew was that he had a rare pre-existing medical condition: cavernous malformation. Blood vessels in his brain had formed abnormally. Sometime after Strough experienced the bullying and the football practice, some of those blood vessels in his brain began to bleed.

Strough had to undergo eight hours of surgery to remove a blood clot near his brainstem. After the surgery, he was in a coma for several days. He has experienced permanent brain damage. He cannot walk. He uses a wheelchair, and it is unknown if he will need the wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Whose fault is it that a 16-year-old boy’s life was so tragically altered?

It is nobody’s fault that Strough was born with a tendency to develop abnormal blood vessels in his brain. However, would those vessels have ruptured if he had not been bullied?

In 2013, Strough filed a legal complaint about the bullying against the Bedford school district and his former coach. In the petition, the teen said that he had reported the bullying several times to the coach and other school officials, but nobody took any action.

Are school officials responsible when bullying takes place on campus? In Oklahoma, two laws touch on that question: the School Bullying Prevention Act (2002) and the Oklahoma School Security Act (2008). Iowa has similar laws. However, Strough’s lawyer ended up amending the petition to drop the student’s complaint about bullying.

Nevertheless, earlier this month a jury in federal court in Des Moines awarded almost $1 million against the school district for how it handled the incident.

The jurors found that the school district and a school nurse were negligent because Strough was allowed to continue participating in football practice after the student complained about headaches and double vision to the school nurse. The jury also found that the school was negligent because it failed to follow up with the boy’s grandmother to make sure the boy was seen by a doctor.

The Law in Oklahoma and Iowa

Is a school obligated to bar a player from sports if the student is demonstrating symptoms of a concussion or brain damage? Absolutely. The law requires it — both in Oklahoma and in Iowa.

Iowa’s 2011 “concussion law” is quite similar to Oklahoma’s 2010 law, which requires that when a student “is suspected of sustaining a concussion or head injury,” he or she must be immediately “removed from participation” in practice and games. A student cannot return to participation until he or she has clearance in writing from a qualified medical provider.

The Oklahoma law also requires school districts to inform coaches, student athletes and parents about the risks associated with concussions and head injuries.

The jury ordered the school district to pay $140,000 to cover Strough’s medical expenses and another $850,000 for pain and suffering, loss of mind and body, and loss of future earnings. No punitive damages were awarded, because the jury said the district did not have willful intent.

Lots of Issues At Stake

The Strough case involves three issues that have drawn considerable attention in recent years: bullying, hazing and sports-related concussions.

Strough’s petition began as a bullying complaint but was then amended to target the school’s response to Strough’s symptoms of concussion. But would the jury have brought the $1 million award if bullying had not been part of the backstory? Would Strough have needed brain surgery if he had not experienced the bullying, but only the football practice?

Was throwing footballs at the freshman’s head some version of hazing? Was it part of that high school team’s culture, a rite of passage for incoming freshman? Was it something the coach chose to ignore?

Did the freshman’s complaints about being bullied generate the wrong kind of response from school officials, who then failed to take his complaints about headaches and double vision seriously?

These are important questions. I don’t know the specific answers as they relate to Kacey Strough and Bedford High School. But there are some general truths here that couldn’t be clearer.

  • Coaches, teachers and school officials must take bullying seriously.
  • Archaic hazing rituals have no place in a modern society.
  • Coaches, nurses and school officials must take possible sports injuries seriously.
  • When a student complains about being bullied, that student should know that somebody is listening and taking action.
  • When a student complains about headaches and double vision, that student should be able to count on some adult to make sure he or she is cared for.

Aren’t those statements beyond debate? It shouldn’t take a lawsuit to remind us of these truths.