The widespread appeal of tackle football without equipment is obvious to anyone who strolls through a college campus or a public park on a bright fall day. There, you are likely to find any number of pick-up games being played by folks of all ages. But, the risk of serious injury from playing sandlot football without protective equipment is not so obvious, at least according to a ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Betts v. New Castle Youth Development Center.

The case kicked off in March 2007, when Eric Betts (“Betts”), who had been rendered a quadriplegic in a pick-up tackle football game played at a juvenile detention center, filed suit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania against the New Castle Youth Development Center (the “YDC”) and various YDC staff members. The game had been played with other residents of the detention center under the supervision of YDC staff members. In his suit, Betts alleged violations of his rights under the Fourth, Fifth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

In a victory for the YDC and its staff, the district court granted their motion for summary judgment on all claims. In doing so, the court held that the claims against the defendants in their official capacities were barred under the Eleventh Amendment, and that the claims directed at them in their individual capacities failed on the merits.

With respect to Betts’s Eighth Amendment claim, the district court held that there was insufficient evidence to raise a genuine issue of fact as to the existence of both a substantial risk of serious harm from playing tackle football without equipment and deliberate indifference to that risk on the part of staff members. Similarly, because the challenged behavior of the YDC staff did not “shock the conscience,” the court found that there was no liability under the state-created danger doctrine and that Betts’s Due Process claims failed. Not willing to give up his fight before the final whistle, Betts appealed the district court decision to the Third Circuit.

In affirming the district court’s decision, the Third Circuit reasoned that in order to prevail under his Eighth Amendment claim (that the YDC’s staff failed to ensure his reasonable safety), Betts was required to show that the YDC staff was “deliberately indifferent to a risk of serious harm.” The question of the staff’s deliberate indifference is a subjective inquiry, while risk of harm is evaluated objectively. With respect to the subjective inquiry, the Third Circuit held that Betts did not demonstrate that the YDC staff knowingly and unreasonably disregarded an objectively intolerable risk of harm by supervising and/or allowing the residents to play tackle football without pads.

The court further found that, regarding the objective component of an Eighth Amendment claim, under the test established by the Supreme Court in Helling v. McKinney, Betts was required to establish: (1) the seriousness of the injury, (2) a sufficient likelihood that serious injury will result from playing tackle football without equipment, and (3) that risk associated with permitting youths to play tackle football without equipment violates contemporary standards of decency. The Third Circuit held that Betts easily met the first part, as no one would contend that being rendered a quadriplegic was not a serious injury, but failed on the remaining two.

On the second prong, the Third Circuit reasoned that the “mere possibility of an injury result[ing] from an activity does not mean there is a ‘substantial risk’ of that injury occurring.” The court further held that “[l]ife is fraught with risk of serious harm and the sports world is no exception,” but an Eighth Amendment violation “may not be predicated on exposure to any risk of serious harm; the risk must be substantial.” The court also found that Betts failed on the third prong since the risks of injury posed by tackle football do not violate contemporary standards of decency as those risks are assumed daily by the “incarcerated and the free alike.”

Finally, the court turned to Betts’s Fourteenth Amendment substantive Due Process claim that the YDC staff was deliberately indifferent to his liberty interest in bodily integrity and that allowing him to play tackle football without equipment constituted a state-created danger. In affirming the district court ruling, the Third Circuit relied on the reluctance of the Supreme Court to expand the concept of substantive Due Process under the “more-specific-provision rule,” which holds that if a constitutional claim is covered by a specific constitutional provision, such as the Eighth Amendment, the claim must be analyzed under the standard appropriate to that specific provision, not under the rubric of substantive Due Process. Because Betts did not cite any case law for the proposition that he might have both a substantive Due Process and Eighth Amendment claim challenging the same conduct, the Third Circuit held that because the allegations fit squarely within the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, the more-specific-provision rule foreclosed Betts’s substantive Due Process claim.