During a preseason soccer scrimmage at Downingtown High School East, an incoming freshman going for a header collided with another player and fell to the ground in tears.
After that, her coach did something that used to be routine, but has increasingly come under scrutiny: He put her back in the game, according to a lawsuit filed by her family last week in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia against the district, the coach, and others.
The suit says the girl, now 16 and identified as M.U., suffered a traumatic brain injury that made her miss most of freshman year and that continues to cause headaches, fatigue, anxiety, and other symptoms two years after the collision on Aug. 20, 2012.
The coach, Craig Reed, is well known in Chester County’s high-octane youth-soccer world. He was hired at Downingtown shortly after graduating from Coastal Carolina University in 2007. He also coaches travel teams for the Vincent United Futbol Club and runs his own training center, 360 Sports, in Chester Springs. He did not return calls for comment.
The complaint also names Total Soccer, the training center where Reed worked previously and to which the suit says he encouraged students to buy “packets of lessons” with the understanding that if they didn’t, they wouldn’t get a coveted spot on the high school’s varsity squad.
Reed left Total Soccer in October, according to co-owner Evren Asral. The company’s general manager, Sean Davies, said Reed was a top-notch coach and “not the kind of guy who would put a kid in that kind of situation.”
A Downingtown spokeswoman said the school district does not comment on legal matters. The girl’s parents, Theresa and Thomas Urban, and their attorney also declined to be interviewed.
They maintain in the complaint that her civil rights were violated by the defendants’ negligent and reckless behavior, and they are seeking in excess of $150,000.
With 12,056 students and two high schools, Downingtown Area School District is the largest in Chester County and a top player in the Ches-Mont League. The East girls soccer team was league champion five of the last 10 years and district champion in 2009.
The school district is also where five of six girls featured in reports in The Inquirer and on NBC’s Rock Center With Brian Williams played on school or travel teams through middle school when they were sidelined by multiple concussions and traumatic brain injuries.
The suit said Reed “worked the girls hard” over the summer, with 6 a.m. practices, sometimes two workouts a day. It alleges that playing on Reed’s travel team was also critical to making varsity.
After M.U. got hit, the suit says, she heard an opposing coach say she should be taken out of the game and evaluated. A teammate sitting on the bench also allegedly told Reed that M.U. had been hit and should be checked out.
But Reed made her play the rest of the scrimmage, and she collided with additional players and continued to head the ball, the complaint says.
That kind of call would go against the state’s Safety in Youth Sports Act, which requires students who show signs of a concussion to be removed from a game and not be allowed to return until they have been medically evaluated. First-time violators face suspension for the season. Three violations result in a permanent ban from coaching. The law went into effect in July 2012.
On the bus ride home from the game that day, M.U. began to get headaches, followed the next day by dizziness and vision problems, the lawsuit said. She missed 80 days of school that year and could attend only a few full days. Her academic performance suffered, affecting her choice of colleges and “the kind of future she will be able to enjoy,” the lawsuit said.
Though students frequently get injured on the playing field, legal experts say it’s extremely difficult to successfully sue school districts and officials over sports injuries – especially in a state court.
Pennsylvania, like most states, has a statute – called the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act – that limits when school districts and their employees can be sued for actions taken in the performance of their everyday duties. Sean Fields, a staff attorney with the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said that usually meant that coaches or other school supervisors couldn’t be sued in a state courtroom for negligence.
Lawyers sometimes turn to the federal courts in school sports-injury cases because the federal laws are somewhat different.
This article was republished with permission from the author, Kathy Beccella. The original article was published in The Philadelphia Inquirer.