Most of the disputes over football are occurring in states where football remains very popular, like Texas, Oklahoma and Ohio, places Mr. Cordell described as “heavy football states.” In states where football appears to be on the wane, including those in the Northeast, disputes are less common because both parents have already decided that the game is too dangerous for their child to play.
One of those football-heavy states is Pennsylvania, where Mr. Orsini, a musician and former lawyer, went to court last summer to prevent his youngest son from playing tackle football. The case will likely result in a trial.
Like many fathers of his generation, Mr. Orsini, 66, was for years an enthusiastic supporter of football. He played the game in grade school and rooted for the hometown Steelers. He enrolled his sons in youth tackle football leagues when they were as young as 5 years old, including his youngest son. Mr. Orsini said he attended their practices and games, including in the years after he and his ex-wife, Janice, divorced in 2004. Their oldest son, Giuseppe, who is now 21, plays football at Case Western University in Cleveland.
Mr. Orsini’s view of the game changed when his youngest son, 17, sustained three sports-related concussions. The first was in 2013, when he was hit in the head with a metal baseball bat while not wearing a helmet. He took a battery of tests at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and, after several weeks, was allowed to resume playing sports.
The second and third concussions were in 2015 and 2016 during football games. Orsini said that afterward, his son was sensitive to light and noise, experienced headaches and was lethargic. His son, he recalled, sat slumped at the table during meals. Again, within a few weeks, doctors cleared him to return to play. Orsini said that when he asked the doctor whether his son should stop playing football, he was told there was no medical evidence that he should cease playing.
“The moment for me started when he repeatedly got diagnosed with concussions and the doctors kept telling me there was no reason for him to not keep going,” Mr. Orsini said. Having worked as a plaintiff’s attorney, he was alarmed. “His mother didn’t question the doctors, but in my profession it is an impossibility.”
Mr. Orsini said he was surprised that his son’s doctors appeared to be sanguine about the dangers of the sport. So he began doing his own research and found, among other things, studies by researchers at Boston University that said that boys who began playing tackle football before the age of 12 had more behavioral and cognitive problems later in life than those who began playing the sport in their teenage years.
Mr. Orsini said he tried unsuccessfully to discuss these findings with his ex-wife.
Mrs. Orsini declined to be interviewed. But her lawyer, John N. Demas, said she considered her son, now a junior in high school, mature enough to understand the risks of the game and to make up his own mind. She also felt reassured that her son’s coaches were well-trained at spotting and caring for concussed players, and that doctors had declared him free of symptoms from the concussions.
“The truth is, this young man loves to play football and understands the dangers, and based on the science now, his mom thinks the benefits are worth the risks,” Mr. Demas said on behalf of Mrs. Orsini.
Mr. Demas added: “Where we are with the science of it, I don’t know if there is enough evidence to say it’s inherently dangerous.”
Mr. Demas said that the Orsinis have joint legal custody of their son, and that Mr. Orsini’s attempts to block their son from playing football amounted to one parent acting unilaterally. In seeking to alter their custody agreement, Mr. Demas said, Mrs. Orsini was only trying maintain the status quo.
“We’re not asking for carte blanche,” Mr. Demas said, “we’re only asking for authority on this decision of whether he can play.”
In late July, just before his son was to start practicing for his junior season, Mr. Orsini told his school that he did not want his son playing. He had joint legal custody, so the school complied.
“I cannot speak to an individual student’s circumstance, but generally in custody disputes, the terms are spelled out and we follow them,” said Patrick O’Toole, the superintendent of the Upper St. Clair School District, about 10 miles south of Pittsburgh. “If there’s a dispute, the parents tell us what to do.”
The case then moved to family court. In early August, Mrs. Orsini filed an emergency request to let her son play, as he had for more than a decade. Mr. Orsini argued that while he had supported his son’s right to play for years, he was now aware of new, worrying research about the safety of the game.
“Playing football cannot be considered status quo when the Child has now suffered three concussions,” Mr. Orsini’s lawyer wrote in a…