HS football deaths: This cannot be the status quo

Cole Anderson and Alec Rainsford

On Thursday, October 22, 2015, Andre Smith, a seventeen-year-old football player from Chicago, was hit during the last play of his football game. Smith proceeded to collapse while making his way to the sidelines, and the next day passed away in the hospital due to “blunt force head injuries due to a football accident,” according to the Cook County Coroner’s office. Smith is now the seventh high school football player to die this year as a direct result of play, a tragically high number which only continues to grow. The causes of death for these players ranges from a broken neck to a lacerated spleen to a seizure.

While the seven deaths this season have drawn headlines and national attention, this year is simply following the trend established by the last thirty. On average, 12 athletes die every year in high school football (5 from direct causes: head, neck, and spine injuries; 7 indirect: heat stroke, underlying illness, or cardiac arrest, for example). Those figures have remained rather consistent since the 1980s. While these are relatively low given the amount of high school football programs in the United States, it is still unacceptable. Too much time has passed for there not to have been an advancement in player safety.

The last major change to high school football was made during the 1970s, with adjustments to protect players who were dying from neck and head injuries. As a response, rules were changed to prohibit leading with the head-on tackles, and helmets were designed with to increase safety. These adjustments dropped the number of deaths by over 50%.

Since those adjustments, however, there has been little to no progress. With so much recent outcry from the deaths of high school athletes, it is hard to understand why this is the case. Certainly if an NFL player died on the field, there would be a flurry of lawsuits, hearings, and rule changes.

The difference could lie in the fact that severe injury or death is assumed to be an unfortunate but normal bi-product of NFL football, but few assume the same of high school competition. So when deaths do occur at the high school level, they are seen as accidents, rather than something to be expected. Maybe that is why change has been so dormant. It is easy to write something off as an accident rather than a product of imperfect, unchanged practices.

It is hard though to call these “accidents” when there is so much precaution still lacking in high school football. A study done by the National Athletic Trainers Association showed that only 37% of high schools employed a full time athletic trainer, just over half had part time trainers, and about three-quarters had access to a trainer at games. In a majority of these injuries, the loss of a life could have been prevented with trained medical help at the scene of the incident, rather than an untrained coach doing his best. The lack of trained help on hand is one very tangible change that can be made. But that change still remains absent.

In recent years, evidence of long term brain damage in some college and most NFL football players has been widely publicized. It is increasingly becoming evident that an NFL contract is an agreement to shorten one’s life significantly.

Perhaps this is why there is the sudden outcry in sports media this year. Certainly we live in a generation where social change needs to be trendy for anything to come of it, and the increased press coverage of detrimental health effects to college and NFL athletes is a perfect jumping board to add high school football to the conversation. Maybe popular sports media outlets have realized that nothing will change unless this issue is made to be something new and unheard of. But this high school football season is nothing new. By the numbers, it is right on track. That is the problem. Not that seven have already died, but that on average, we can expect five more kids to die before the season comes to a close. Not that there have been seven unfortunate accidents, but precisely the opposite; that these weren’t accidents at all.

The commentary on this issue needs to change from that of a new problem to an urgent need for change to an issue that has been consistent for 30-35 years. No 16-year-old should have to assume a risk of death substantially higher than that of most other activities just to play a sport.