Can a family court decide whether your kid should play football?

While many people in Tennessee couldn’t live without football, the sport is becoming more controversial. Studies of the brains of NFL players and other contact sportsmen have found that repeated concussions may cause a serious, lifelong brain injury called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. And, kids who play tackle football before age 12 could be especially at risk.

This has many parents reconsidering whether their children should play tackle football, or at least how young they should start or whether they should continue after suffering a concussion. When the parents disagree, could a family court step in to resolve the disagreement?

In some circumstances, yes. If the parents have a joint child custody order and parenting plan, one parent could ask the family court to amend or enforce that order. It would be an amendment request if the order doesn’t sufficiently address the issue; an enforcement order if the order is specific.

Under Tennessee law, parents typically get joint custody as long as it’s in the best interests of the children. Noncustodial parents — those who have the smaller share of time with the kids — have the right to participate in decisions about the child’s education and activities. That gives both parents the right to decide.

If they can’t agree, some method of resolving the dispute will be needed. The custody and parenting plan may specify a dispute resolution method. If it does not, it is likely the court would order the parents to participate in mediation.

In mediation, the parents work with a neutral third party to resolve the dispute out of court. A broad range of options can be considered — broader even than a court would be able to order. For example, the parent concerned about the safety of football might agree to allow the child to play as long as specific medical tests were performed and the child was cleared to play. Or, the football-supportive parent might agree to pull the child out of the sport after any concussion.

If the parents were unable to agree after mediation, they could take their dispute before a family court judge for a final decision.

Would that be wise? Every case is different. The New York Times recently profiled one such dispute that is taking place in Pennsylvania. The child, now 17, has been playing football for over a decade and has suffered three concussions. The divorced parents cannot agree on whether to allow their son to continue playing.

The son’s 18th birthday is in November, which means that he will then be legally able to make his own decision, regardless of what the court says.