CINCINNATI — Denny Doyle is a devoted Catholic and lifelong football fan, and he saw little conflict between the two until his grandson was old enough to play the game. Then he started reading about the risks of football to young boys, whose brains are particularly vulnerable to concussions. To Doyle’s relief, his grandson chose flag football.
But Doyle saw with his eyes a bigger problem: The Roman Catholic Church he loved was endangering tens of thousands of other boys by sponsoring the Catholic Youth Organization, or CYO, which runs football leagues across the country.
Doyle, a former attorney, feared the church would be sued if a player suffered a catastrophic brain injury on the field or suffered neurological or cognitive problems years later. After all, the church had promised to protect children from harm after the child abuse scandals that led to billions of dollars in settlements.
Ultimately, Doyle thought, an enterprising attorney for the plaintiffs would argue that the church is still exposing children to damage on the football field.
So Doyle made it his mission to take the church out of the tackle football business.
“Nothing like this disrupts my faith because my faith transcends Catholicism and my own relationship with God,” Doyle said. “But it’s disappointing and sad because I think they’re making a terrible mistake and damaging children’s brains. It is the second child abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.”
An invitation to meet with experts
Doyle, 78, married and the father of four grown children, also has nine grandchildren. He had a successful career at Chiquita Brands International, where he started as a general counsel and rose through the executive ranks. When you meet him, you notice his deep tan (he splits his time between Cincinnati and West Palm Beach, Florida), the jolt of gray hair on his crown, and the relentless intensity with which he speaks about football and the Catholic Church.
A cradle Catholic whose family foundation has donated millions of dollars to Catholic causes, including Catholic secondary education and student endowments, he is an unlikely horde.
Doyle’s mission is also personal. He started playing tackle football at age 7 and suffered concussions in grade school, high school and college that left him with Xavier’s team after a particularly nasty goal. Doyle wondered if he would develop the same cognitive and neurological problems that NFL players have faced.
In the four years since he began lobbying church officials, Doyle has urged the archdiocese in his hometown, Cincinnati, to recognize the risks it faces. He hired a Catholic sports law professor to write opinions about the archdiocese’s legal exposure by allowing youth football on the grounds, and sent them to church officials.
Giving a presentation to them in 2018, Doyle offered to fly them to Boston to visit scientists studying the links between brain disease and repeated headbutts.
“I didn’t ask them to make any commitments, just to listen,” Doyle said.
In a study by researchers in Boston, athletes who started tackling before the age of 12 were were at greater risk of behavioral and cognitive problems later in life than those who started playing after age 12.
Church officials politely but firmly declined Doyle’s invitation. The church said it stopped administering CYO sports decades ago and that church parishes were asked to run the competitions.
Doyle said the archdiocese is still at risk because CYO leagues often play their games at church-owned parish schools. The Archdiocese declined to comment.
The archdiocese, he said, is hesitant to regulate CYO leagues because football is popular in Ohio and it doesn’t want to alienate young parishioners.
“In abortion, the church says that when a life is at stake, we do the utmost to protect life,” Doyle said. “They hang themselves there to protect life, but if someone tells them to protect a life from brain damage, they don’t want to look.”
Tim Neary, a historian at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island who has written about CYO, agreed that dioceses conflict because many parishioners love football. But “legally, a more protective stance would make sense,” he said. “There’s this movement, this real fear of head injury, and it’s doubly present in the minds of dioceses that are in financial trouble.”
Doyle hasn’t settled for fighting the football in this hotbed of the sport. Some of his neighbors who are volunteer coaches quietly admit to having concerns about the safety of the game. But they don’t talk because they fear the tight leagues could close if they have to spend more on training, equipment and injury monitoring.
Unable to make headway in Cincinnati, Doyle donated money to the Concussion Legacy Foundation to pay for videos promoting flag football for children under 14. He also sent letters and scientific research papers to the 40 dioceses in the country with the most youth soccer players, and offered to fly them to Boston as well. Two Pennsylvania Catholic Conference officials accepted his invitation.
Sean McAleer, the director of education at the conference, said that during his two-day trip to Boston, he learned about youth soccer and the increased risk of later cognitive problems.
“We never thought this would have eternal consequences for children,” he said. “Anything with youth that can cause an injury, we want to protect children.”
McAleer said some of his state’s dioceses have abandoned tackling football because of liability, but those CYO programs that still offer the sport are now teaching players to avoid direct contact. Coaches, he added, are trained to identify a concussion on the field.
Still, some dioceses are taking more control over their youth sports programs, not less. In Cleveland, the largest diocese in Ohio, CYO is managed by a full-time staff that runs 11 sports programs for 20,000 children, and has a series of charters and statutes for liability and legal protection. It introduced seven-on-seven tackle football to help young players get into the game, and has drastically reduced the amount of contact during practice.
The diocese also works with the sports medicine center at Akron Children’s Hospital to detect concussions and other injuries. University Hospitals Sports Medicine, which operates in Northeastern Ohio, provides experts to teach coaches about the prevention and treatment of injuries, including concussion.
Dobie Moser, CYO’s director for Catholic charities in Cleveland, hopes the extra steps will bolster the tackle football program, which has seen a 42 percent drop among seventh-graders and a 58 percent drop among eighth-graders between 2014 and 2019. show. football program expanded rapidly during the same period.
“CYO is not immune: the trends and problems in football also affect us a lot,” Moser said. “We’re not blindly optimistic that what we’re doing will reverse these trends.”
All volunteer coaches must take courses in basic medicine and sports teaching methods. Football coaches are also required to take nine hours of football safety classes to get coaches to stop using the outdated approach methods they grew up with, when head injuries were taken less seriously.
“The greatest asset in CYO is the quality of the coaches,” said Moser. “The biggest risk is the quality of coaches.”
A group of coaches met on a Saturday in July 2019 at Lake Catholic High School in Mentor, Ohio, about 30 minutes from Cleveland. Marty Gibbons, an alumnus and former college player, told three dozen volunteer coaches about new tackling techniques that focus on using the shoulder to minimize the risk of head and neck injuries.
“Everyone says there will be no more football, so we have to adapt,” Gibbons said. “Ultimately you are liable, so take good care of your players.”
Tim Tyrrell, the football coach of Archbishop Hoban High School in Akron, Ohio, told a group of 20 volunteer coaches during another training session that the decline in the number of Catholic schools and the lack of national standards for teaching football has prompted players to to other sports and better organized competitions.
“It hurts a bit because it pulls kids away from the sport,” he said.
Despite the slow progress in getting his message across, Doyle said he will continue to get his message out to the church because the risks are so great.
“You are now going through massive child abuse lawsuits that you have covered up, so you have to look at this issue like a church like you wish you had looked at the child abuse issue when it was first reported,” Doyle said. “You are a steward of children and afterwards you have done enormous damage. I would hope they would look at this issue through the lens of what happened.”