The comparison to Erin Brockovich makes a lot of sense, even if Kimberly Archie doesn’t entirely embrace it.
“Her and I both hate that,” the 48-year-old sports safety advocate said with a chuckle while preparing to head off to Dallas.
There, for the first time, a sports league was put on trial last week for a chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)-related death. Debra Hardin-Ploetz sued the NCAA for negligence and wrongful death on behalf of her late husband, Greg, who played football for the University of Texas in the late ’60s and early ’70s and who was posthumously diagnosed with Stage 4 CTE. By the end of his life, the the neurological damage was so great he was unable to care for himself.
Both Archie and Ploetz-Hardin are members of Faces of CTE, a support and advocacy group comprised of mothers who have lost family members to the disease. But even if that relationship didn’t exist, there was no way Archie would have skipped out on a case of this magnitude. For the last 15 years, she’s been a staunch, unyielding crusader on behalf of both professional and young athletes, and the founder of multiple organizations dedicated to improving sports safety.
Like Brockovich, Archie is entirely self-taught, though she says she’s currently studying to take the California bar exam. Still, by her own estimation, Archie has devoted 20,000 hours in total raising awareness, organizing grassroots efforts both online and off, lobbying congress, pushing legislation, and, most important, providing research, serving as a legal consultant, and personally battling corporate entities including U.S. Soccer, the NCAA, the NFL, Pop Warner football, helmet manufacturers, and even PG&E—yes, the California gas and electric giant Brockovich helped bring to its knees—in court.
Hence the descriptor of Archie provided by Sports Illustrated: “Think Erin Brockovich with a neurologist’s grasp of traumatic brain injuries.” (Brockovich did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
It’s a quest that has been marked by personal tragedy. In 2014, her son Paul Bright Jr. died in a motorcycle accident, and he too was later diagnosed with CTE. But Archie isn’t out to extract a pound of flesh. Far from it. Rather, she wants to save football and sees the legal system and threat of financial harm as only way to compel real change and maybe save another family from having to experience the kind of unimaginable loss she knows all too well.
“I will go down in flames, I will do whatever I have to do to fight for my son and victims like him against anybody who gets in the way of justice,” she said.
“My son’s dead. I can’t bring him back. I can only fight to prevent this from happening in the future.”
Archie was born and raised in Northern California in a small rural community three hours north of San Francisco that she refers to as the “Arkansas of California.” Since the early ’90s, she’s mainly resided in Southern California, and she attended the College of the Desert, a community college in Riverside County.
She previously worked as a nonprofit school fundraiser, raising millions, she says, for various booster clubs, cheerleading teams, and the PTA, while raising three children, Paul, Janaye, and Tiffani.
Her newfound career arose out of the blue in 2003, when Tiffani, then a high school cheerleader, suffered a compound fracture between elbow and wrist during practice. She had been practicing back handsprings on a trampoline, and another student foolishly got on at the same time. They collided, sending Tiffani tumbling to the ground. A metal plate and eight screws were inserted in her arm, which had to remain in place in perpetuity for her to have any hope of continuing to cheer and to prevent additional injury.
Despite the mounting medical bills, suing either the school or the cheerleading coach was out of the question, Archie explained. Unless she could prove that they acted with gross negligence, she didn’t stand a chance in court. She began researching like a fiend and found, much to her dismay, that, whereas employers are required to mitigate risk in the workplace, schools and their sports teams aren’t held to the same standard; they only have a duty not to increase risk. “Kids have no rights in sports. Absolutely none,” she said. “I was just livid about it.”
So she hit the books, poring through the available data on the injury rates of cheerleaders and other student athletes, contributing research where possible, advocating for legislation, and taking legal courses, all in her spare time. Then in late 2007, she and Tiffani were huddled around the kitchen table, talking about their upcoming appearance in an E! True Hollywood Story episode about cheerleading safety. At the time, they were in the process of creating a cheerleader safety website, but her daughter convinced her to go all in. A few months later, she founded the National Cheer Safety Foundation.
After a paralegal class Archie and Tiffani were taking together showed the movie Erin Brockovich, Archie was inspired to send off a blind message to the firm, Masry & Vittoe. That same day, she heard back. During a lunch with a member of the firm, they concocted a plan, “to engineer the legal civil rights movement for child athletes,” she said. Eventually, Archie began consulting Girardi & Keefe, the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in what would become the billion-dollar NFL concussion settlement. For that case, Archie traveled the country, meeting with players and NFLPA representatives, and talking with families about how to both spot and deal with symptoms of brain trauma
Luckily, “Tom Girardi believed in my nutty and uncanny ability to see things other people can't see,” said Archie. In total, Archie has worked with the firm eight times, including the families suing PG&E over Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, which killed 36 people, an engineer who was killed in a horrific train crash in Oxnard, California, and a college volleyball player who is suing Stanford and the NCAA after she suffered neurological damage and repeated concussions, causing her to prematurely retire.
Reached by phone, Girardi said Archie is “a very dedicated person who went through hell, and wants to make sure that somebody else doesn't.”
Since 2008, Archie says has either provided research or served as a consultant for approximately 40 sports safety lawsuits and enough of a profile that she snagged an audience with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, where she pitched a revamped player safety plan and an invitation to attend a 2014 Healthy Kids and Safe Sports Concussion Summit hosted by President Obama, though Goodell hasn’t acted on any of her suggestions, and Archie would later dismiss the summit as a “publicity stunt” and a “press conference for the NFL.”
It’s a career arc that Archie called a “wild ride,” one that she didn’t really expect and couldn’t possibly have imagined for herself back in 2003. Yet she no idea her son was “walking around with brain damage that would develop into CTE,” Archie said.
In the final two years of his life, Archie had grown increasingly concerned about Paul’s behavior. Per the Los Angeles Times, in 2014, Paul was heading home from work on his newly-purchased motorcycle and had stopped at an intersection. When the light changed, he took off and was approaching 60 miles per hour and was accelerating when his motorcycle collided with a car that had run a red light, and was killed in the crash. Archie couldn't help but recall Junior Seau, who drove off a cliff before committing suicide, and Justin Strzelczyk, who died when he drove his truck into traffic. Both former NFL players were eventually diagnosed with CTE.
Paul had played Pop Warner football starting at age 7, continuing through his freshman year of high school when he was 15. Though Paul was never diagnosed with a concussion when he was a kid, the years of research Archie had conducted and her knowledge of potential for neurological damage caused by subconcussive blows led Archie to believe her son may have been exhibiting symptoms associated with brain trauma at the time of his death.
Hoping against hope, she donated Paul’s brain to the Boston University CTE Center, which has examined the brains of hundreds of athletes. In July 2017, BU revealed that of 111 NFL players whose brains they examined, 110 showed signs of CTE, as did 48 of 53 college players.
Further, in a study published in January, BU researchers found that “repetitive neurotrauma, independent of concussion, may induce early CTE brain pathologies, even in teenagers and young adults.” An additional study published in September showed that playing tackle football before the age of 12 may lead to and increased risk of a wide range of emotional, cognitive, and behavioral problems later in life, including depression, apathy, and decreased executive functioning.
The BU Center informed Archie that Paul’s test turned up positive for the early stages of CTE in April 2015, a year and a half after his death. So Archie filed a lawsuit against Pop Warner in 2016, charging the 89-year-old nonprofit and largest youth football program in America with negligence and fraud. Her co-plaintiff in the lawsuit is Jo Cornell, whose son Tyler played football from ages 7 to 17 and took his own life at age 24. Prior to his death, Tyler was “experiencing behavioral issues and was diagnosed with depression,” which began in his senior year of high school, according to the lawsuit. He too tested positive for CTE.
They’ve enlisted Girardi as their lead attorney, and argue that Pop Warner failed to protect the young athletes, inform them about the risks of playing football, and falsely advertised their product as being safe for kids. (Pop Warner, which reportedly paid around $2 million to settle a different concussion-related lawsuit, declined to comment, citing the ongoing legislation.)
“They’re trying to cover their buns, no question about it,” Girardi said, referring to the various companies facing CTE litigation.
Regardless of which entity is being put on trial, he said, “the only thing that ever really wakes them up, is when they’ve got to write a check.”
On Friday afternoon, the NCAA agreed to do just that. After a scant three of testimony, Ploetz-Hardin and the NCAA came to a settlement agreement. Though the terms of the agreement had not been made public, and, to a certain degree, organized football had been let off the hook, Archie was thrilled.
Patrick Hruby, who has extensively covered CTE-related issues for Deadspin, Vice Sports, and ESPN, described the lawsuit as putting the NCAA in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation,” he told The Daily Beast.
“Losing the case would have provided a playbook for umpteenth other lawsuits coming from former college football players with brain damage.”
Settling though, doesn’t eliminate those risks, Hruby said, but will likely spur more lawsuits, “because both they and their lawyers now know the NCAA is vulnerable in these kinds of cases.”
He continued: “If somebody who played college football in the 1960s and early 1970s can make a compelling case that the NCAA knew about the brain damage risks of the sport and could or should have done more to protect players, then athletes who played football much more recently will be able to make even more compelling cases.”
Archie is also involved in another CTE-related lawsuit, providing research on behalf of Darren Hamblin, who is suing two major U.S. helmet manufacturers, Riddell and Schutt. In 2016, Hamblin’s 22-year-old son Cody suffered a seizure while fishing with his grandfather, tumbling from the boat and drowning in a lake.
The suit argues that the seizure was caused by the ten years he spent playing tacking football, and that neither he nor his son were aware of “the long-term effects of repeat brain injuries, sub-concussive hits and cumulative brain trauma and relied on the defendants to protect them.” Moreover, “the helmet was not designed for minors, there are known design defects, inadequate fitting instructions and inadequate adult manufacturing standards applied towards an even more vulnerable population, child athletes,” the lawsuit states.
The helmets worn by kids provide a false sense of security, according to Archie. “[Riddell and Schutt] never should have been selling them in the first place,” she said.
“They knew they weren't made for children,” Archie continued. “They knew that it increased the risk of brain damage; they covered it up, and sold it anyway. It's unbelievable.”
More than anything, Archie wants companies to stop selling helmets to kids, even if it would put an end to kids playing tackle football altogether. “No helmet, no tackle,” she said. (One of Faces of CTE’s stated objectives is to eliminate tackle football for all children younger than 14.) “None of these kids should have ever been playing. That's the sick tragedy.”
(Riddell did not respond to a request for comment and Schutt declined to comment, citing a corporate policy regarding pending or ongoing litigation.)
It’s one that the sports world will probably never fully face up to, said Brad Sohn, an experienced sports injury litigator who is leading the lawsuit against the NFL brought by the daughter of Aaron Hernandez the former New England Patriots tight end who was serving a life sentence after being found guilty of first-degree murder, committed suicide in prison, and was posthumously diagnosed with a particularly severe case of CTE.
While he expressed confidence in the merits of both cases Archie is directly involved in, Sohn said that he doubts any jury decision will force a full reckoning: “I don’t know how you market a sport to children if you admit it can kill children.”
The NFL, for example, will continue to tout its own research, and insist that it is moving heaven and earth to protect its employees and instill proper tackling techniques in its own league and ones for teens—while fudging the data, per a New York Times investigation—even as they’ve erected a bureaucratic nightmare to tamp down the concussion settlement payments.
To a certain extent, the PR campaign is working. From Dallas, Archie told The Daily Beast that by her estimation only about one in five potential jurors raised their hands when asked if they had ever heard of CTE. Not one potential juror had read the book League of Denial, or seen the subsequent PBS documentary, which laid out how the NFL has known for decades about the link between brain trauma and playing football, and how the league actively worked to obscure and cover up the information, especially as Dr. Bennet Omalu’s discovery of CTE became public.
And few reporters showed up to document the historic, if brief, trial, though lawyers representing some of the hundreds of former college players who are also suing the NCAA were either in attendance or watching a paid livestream broadcast.
Despite all this, Archie still considers herself a fan and has maintained friendships with many of the players she’s met in the course of her work. But like President Obama, who said it would be difficult to let any of his children pick up a football, Archie is finding it harder and harder to plunk down and watch a game.
“I literally get physically ill watching them hit because I know what the design flaws [in the helmets] are doing to the players,” she said.
“You can’t unknow what you know.”