I have heard talk of the recent surge in deaths in high school football over and over this fall. These events have been discussed on morning news shows and sports websites regularly. But I have also heard some people make the argument that high school football is safe when compared to activities like driving a car. I decided to discuss the data regarding deaths in high school football this season compared to recent decades for my latest newspaper column. You can – and should – decide for yourself (and your kids) if the risk is too high.
Tyrell Cameron. Ben Hamm. Evan Murray. Kenney Bui. Rod Williams. Cam’ron Matthews. Andre Smith. Luke Schemm.
These are all young athletes who have died this season playing high school football.
Direct vs. indirect fatalities in football
Deaths in a sport can be classified as either direct and indirect fatalities. Direct fatalities are those that result from football itself, such as a player suffering a broken neck tackling an opponent. Indirect deaths result from exertion while playing. Examples include heat stroke and cardiac deaths.
From available media reports, it appears that most of the young athletes listed above died from events directly caused by football. They died from brain injuries, cervical spine injuries or a lacerated spleen.
If these reports are accurate, then at least six of the deaths this fall are directly related to high school football. Add these to the 8 deaths in 2013 and 5 in 2014, and this three-year period marks the highest total since 1986-1988, according to Jason Lisk of The Big Lead.
Are these recent deaths part of a trend?
Whether or not this recent spike in fatalities is part of a trend or just an aberration remains to be seen.
Dr. Frederick Mueller, the former director of the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, told me that in the 1960s and early 1970s, 25 to 30 athletes died each year as a result of head and neck injuries. In 1976, football banned spear tackling – the use of the helmet and facemask to block and tackle players. This change helped to dramatically cut fatalities in the sport.
According to data from the NCCSIR, 26 high school football players suffered deaths directly related to the sport between 2003 and 2012, or about 3 per year. 19 direct fatalities have occurred from 2013 through the end of the 2015 season, which appears to be a significant increase. It’s possible, however, that 24/7 media coverage and the proliferation of social media has helped to publicize deaths we might never have heard about in the past.
While it’s hard to conclude that deaths in high school football are becoming more common, it is clear that we aren’t making much headway in preventing them either.
Why aren’t deaths in high school football dropping?
Part of the problem could be the evolution of the sport at the high school level and the athletes who play it. Kids start playing competitively at a much younger age, so the high school game is played at a higher level than ever. Plus the athletes are bigger, faster and stronger and deliver hits with more force than they did decades ago.
More worrisome, though, are the deaths indirectly related to football. 62 indirect fatalities occurred between 2008 and 2014, according to NCCSIR data. Most deaths from heat stroke, sickling in athletes with sickle cell trait and heart issues can be prevented with rapid and appropriate medical response in the first few minutes. Yet these deaths seem to be rising.
Parents must decide if the risk is acceptable
I don’t present these statistics to scare anyone. The simple fact is that kids die playing football.
You might look at that number – 6 deaths directly caused by football this year – and think that it isn’t many when 1.1 million kids play high school football. Or you might be a parent who decides it is far too high.
We need more research on high school football deaths and new strategies to prevent them. Would creating more protective helmets make a difference? Would teaching proper tackling techniques help? Yes, we need those efforts and much, much more. But the last 40 years have shown us that we aren’t making much progress.
Football is more popular than ever, and kids want to play. Parents will have to decide if 6 deaths a year is an acceptable risk for their children.
Note: This article appears in a modified format as my sports medicine column in the November 25, 2015 issue of The Post and Courier.
Reports – Football fatalities and Data tables. National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Louisiana high school football player dies after injury. By Joe Sutton and Melissa Gray. CNN. September 6, 2015.
Bartlesville, Oklahoma High School Football Player Dies Following Head Injury. KFSM. BY Zuzanna Sitek. KFSM. September 21, 2015.
Coroner reveals N.J. high school QB’s cause of death. CBS New York. September 28, 2015.
Georgia football player Rod Williams dies nearly two weeks after collapsing in practice. By Cam Smith. USA TODAY High School Sports. October 7, 2015.
Kenney Bui: the life and death of a high school football player. By Les Carpenter. The Guardian. October 14, 2015.
Cam’ron Matthews, Alto High School Football Player, Dies After Game. By Andrew Rudansky, F. Brinley Bruton, Elisha Fieldstat and Jacquellena Carrero. NBC News. October 18, 2015.
Laughter, tears for Bogan football player; autopsy blames head injuries. Chicago Tribune. Nick Swedberg and Erin Gallagher. October 24, 2015.
Young football players die in Kansas, Ohio. By John Newsome. CNN. November 5, 2015.
High School Deaths Directly Due to Football Injuries are at Highest Three-Year Level Since Late 80’s. By Jason Lisk. The Big Lead. November 5, 2015.