As a mother whose son’s life was tragically cut short, Kimberly Archie feels the terrible pain but also considers herself fortunate that she can do more than just grieve.
Archie’s uncommon outlook is rooted in the fact that, as a leading national advocate for youth sports safety, she's uniquely qualified to seek justice on behalf of her son. Described as “Erin Brockovich with a neurologist’s grasp of traumatic brain injuries” in a 2016 Sports Illustrated article titled “Endgame,” Archie’s activism began in the early 2000s, when one of her daughters was severely injured while training as a cheerleader for North Medford High School.
Prior to the passing of her son, Paul Bright Jr. — who died in 2014 at age 24 in a motorcycle collision — Archie had become an expert on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease, and its impact on athletes, particularly football players.
Archie suspected the reckless driving that led to her son’s death — he was reportedly speeding through city traffic on an uninsured motorcycle he’d purchased on Craigslist — stemmed from impact-related brain trauma he incurred while playing football from age 7 to 15, during which time he was never diagnosed with a concussion.
“Something was truly not right that day, and I needed to know why and I’d already had a premonition that he’d already had a brain disease and I wanted to know the truth,” Archie said.
After a sleepless night following her son’s death, Archie got on the phone the next morning to Dr. Bennet Omalu, the researcher who discovered the link between CTE and playing football — and who was portrayed by actor Will Smith in the 2015 film “Concussion” — and Chris Nowinski, CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation and outreach and recruiting leader at Boston University’s CTE Center.
“There was no hesitation to examine his brain,” said Archie, who had Paul’s brain shipped to the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank, founded in 2008 as a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Boston University School of Medicine and the Concussion Legacy Foundation to collect and study post-mortem human brain tissue in order to better understand the acute and long-term consequences of brain trauma, including post-concussion syndrome and CTE.
The brain bank’s director, Dr. Ann McKee, confirmed through examination what Archie had suspected: The protein tau, the marker of CTE, had clumped to form a signature pattern in the frontal cortex of Paul’s brain, revealing that Paul in fact had early stage (I of IV) CTE.
That discovery led Archie, along with another California mother, Jo Cornell, to file a federal lawsuit Sept. 1, 2016 — the two-year anniversary of Paul’s death — against three nonprofit giants of the youth football industry: Pop Warner, the world’s largest youth football program; the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE), which establishes safety standards for football helmets; and USA Football, the national governing body for amateur American football.
The suit, which seeks class-action status, asks for unspecified damages for negligence, fraud and other counts. But its primary purpose is to expose what industry executives knew and when they knew it, Archie said.
“It’s a realistic expectation that we can get that,” she said.
'Erin Brockovich' connection
Archie, 48, now a recognized sports risk management expert, has worked as a Los Angeles-based legal consultant for the past seven years with the firm headed by consumer protection trial lawyer Tom Girardi. He's best known for the case against Pacific Gas & Electric that was the inspiration for the film “Erin Brockovich,” starring Julia Roberts.
“It’s really important, as someone who worked on the NFL case with pro players, feeling injustice about a lack of discovery, to bring that public attention,” she said. “That’s such a huge thing swept under the rug for decades and for it to be left there. If my son’s death can help shed light on the injustice, I think that’s something he would be proud of."
Protecting children from maltreatment in sports became Archie’s personal mission when her eldest daughter, Tiffani Bright, was a cheerleader at North Medford from 2002 to 2006. A couple of years later, the crusading mother-daughter duo would transform their passion into a professional calling.
"Day One," as Archie calls it, came Nov. 17, 2003, when Tiffani broke her wrist during her sophomore year while attending a cheer tumbling class. She landed improperly after another cheerleader started onto a trampoline on which Tiffani was doing back handsprings.
Bones in Tiffani’s wrist were poking through her skin. Her mother scooped her up and rushed her to the hospital.
Archie was a devoted supporter of the cheerleading program at North and stayed heavily involved throughout Tiffani’s tenure. She became president of the parent club. And she took numerous injured children to emergency rooms, she said.
Repeated complaints to the school district about systemic safety problems were referred back to school coaches and administrators, said Archie, who maintains that more should have been done in response. She considered suing the district, she said, but had conflicting feelings about targeting a program she’d helped build up.
“That was nuts,” Archie said. “We wanted to build something, not tear it down.”
“These people think they’re doing the best they can,” she added. “They’re not evil people. In their defense, this is a systemic issue. It’s the bigger picture that matters.”
So Archie focused her efforts on making progress at the national level, as a “small-town mom who started out by sending faxes to lawmakers,” teaming up in 2006 with fellow cheer parents to found the Bring it On Safety Alliance to lobby for stricter cheerleading safety guidelines in various states.
Shortly thereafter, during a heart-to-heart talk at the kitchen table on a fateful morning in 2008, Archie and Tiffani — now 29 and a legal assistant at a smaller law firm — decided they “had the ability to take this on and we could do it,” Archie said, so they made their commitment full-time, founding the Los-Angeles based National Cheer Safety Foundation.
“I would not be doing this if I hadn’t lived (in Medford) at that time,” Archie said. “I don’t think I would’ve had the same perspective at all. That is the underpinning of this journey.”
A devastating, horrific turn
Their journey took a devastating, horrific turn years later when Paul died and was discovered to have had CTE, likely caused from playing football.
“It’s an ironic twist of fate that really takes people's breath away when they think about it,” Archie said.
“We had the ability to take this on and we could do it, never knowing that we would be one of them (family members of a victim) one day,” she added. “It was our destiny to take this on and be a voice for the voiceless.”
In a 2006 article in the Mail Tribune — the first of numerous pieces written about Archie’s work — former Medford Public Schools administrator Doug Jantzi, in response to Archie’s push to improve safety protocols, said he would “be proud if Medford was known for making a difference in cheerleader safety.”
“I’m pretty sure they never thought we’d take it this far,” Archie said.
After Tiffani graduated from North and started college, the family moved to Southern California in 2008, when Archie wrote an email to the “Erin Brockovich lawyers” telling them she’d become known as “the Erin Brockovich of sports safety.”
Based on a cold call, Archie ended up working with Girardi’s firm as, according to her bio, “the nation’s leading expert on child maltreatment in sports. She has been a legal consultant and expert in more than 70 lawsuits involving athletes in sports — from kids to the pros. Her legal strategies and research have been used in landmark cases such as the NFL brain injury litigation and U.S. Soccer case that removed headers for kids 10 and under.”
“It’s definitely an unusual story and a crazy twist,” Archie said.
Her lawsuit against Pop Warner was filed by none other than Girardi himself, who is leading what Archie considers a legal dream team in her corner.
“I couldn’t ask for a better group of people to fight on behalf of athletes,” she added. “I couldn’t think of a better person to fight for my son than Tom Girardi.”
Archie’s journey has been epic: She’s recently appeared on “The Dr. Oz Show,” promoting her National Cheer Safety Foundation; been to the White House, attending President Obama’s 2014 Concussion Summit; lobbied lawmakers on Capitol Hill, urging rules to cut collisions in sports for kids younger than 14; met with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and then-NFL senior vice president of health and safety Jeff Miller, pitching them on banning youth contact football as the core of her comprehensive safety program for the sport.
And now, with her own lawsuit going to trial in federal court, Archie’s undertaking has reached “a turning point of sorts,” she said.
“We’re on the cusp of the current leaders in the industry going down as heroes or scumbags, and they have to decide because the door is closing quickly,” she said.
Meeting with Goodell
When Archie met with Goodell and Miller in 2014, she tried to sell them on the idea of charging an additional $1 per ticket for every game in order to fund research that could make the game safer — a “make-capitalism-work-for-us kind of approach,” Archie said.
“I told them, ‘Protecting kids is protecting your bottom line,’ ” she said. “It’s not a good business plan to give brain damage to your future fans or future employees.”
“I’m still waiting for Jeff and Roger to call,” she added, “but I’m not holding my breath.”
By pushing for federal regulation of the football industry, Archie hopes to save it, not destroy it, providing a “win-win” scenario in which the children who are protected from unnecessary damage grow up to become healthier producers and consumers of the game, she said, distinguishing football as “the ultimate team sport.”
“The biggest problem is kids sustaining 60,000 hits before they get to the NFL,” she said. “That’s why they’re so injury-prone.”
As a woman attempting to make changes to what’s largely considered a man’s sport, Archie has become accustomed to criticism, be it from “keyboard cowboys” on Twitter or an NFL Hall of Famer who mocked Archie as she presented details on a football helmet prototype.
Many of Archie’s critics are men who say she’s too emotional and overprotective and doesn't understand football, she said.
Archie recalls that when she spoke in front of NFL players, in 2012, a former member of the Dallas Cowboys, who played in the 1970s, approached her after her speech to quip, “You know you don’t stand to pee?”
“This would be a lot easier if I was a dad,” she said. “I get that all the time: ‘You’ve never played a down.’”
“This is like the last stand of the patriarch. On the flip side, I see last phase of feminism,” she added, dubbing football and cheerleading “America’s homecoming king and queen.”
The cultural question boils down to this, Archie said: “Is youth football truly a benefit to society or is it a detriment that we’re not willing to look at because of our love for the American way?”
Because so many Americans — from parents and coaches to judges and juries — are “drunk with the Kool-Aid from America’s love for sports,” their capacity to protect children has been compromised, Archie said, a syndrome for which she invented the term "child athlete abuse disorder."
In many other walks of life, criminal charges are brought against adults who are held responsible for children’s safety when they participate in dangerous activities, Archie said.
“As a society, we need to evolve as human beings,” she said. “I don’t think we should have regulations on everything. It just so happens we’re discussing the safety of kids.
“It’s our family legacy, and it’s the legacy of my dead son to change sports from reactionary to proactive in putting kids before profits,” Archie said. “Kids are more important than company profits. They’re our future. Nothing’s more valuable.
“I certainly will not miss this clutch opportunity. I certainly will not miss my last chance to honor my son,” she added. “I picked kids over everything else. I’ll go down in flames. My job is to stand in the gap for them and make a difference.”
— Reach reporter Mike Oxendine at 541-776-4499 or firstname.lastname@example.org.