Examining The Risks of Youth Football: Adults Need To Wisen Up

Doc Bear examines the risk of youths playing football.

Tyrell Cameron. Ben Hamm. Evan Murray. Kenney Bui. Roddrick Williams. Cam’ron Matthews. Andre Smith.

Those are the names of the seven young people who died in the first seven weeks of this fall. They won’t be the last. In 2014, there were five deaths directly related to head and spinal injuries from football. Another six died of indirect causes - heat exhaustion and heart episodes, usually from pushing through when they should be resting.

Those numbers don’t include the young players who are put on painkillers to overcome an injury, and who end up using heroin to deal with the pain when the prescriptions run out. It doesn’t include the number of young people who take to using steroids to ‘bulk up’, or who experience chest impacts that lead to fatal heart episodes much later. 

Matt Chaney is a Missouri sports journalist. He’s a former college defensive end himself. He’s spent years collecting football stories from all over the U.S. and is the author if Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Football. Incredibly, no one else appears to be doing that. There is no government or medical agency trying to find out how many deaths and severe injuries really do occur from playing the game.

‘‘It’s crazy trying to figure this all out. There are so many indirect deaths that it’s hard to make any statement. But just from newspaper files, I know there are way more [than are reported].

‘‘Beyond the violent, vicious deaths, we don’t hear much,’’ Chaney said. ‘‘They aren’t even reported. But I feel pretty confident there are dozens of deaths each year that are indirectly related to football.

‘‘Cardiac arrest at home for some of these kids — cardiac arrest caused by impact, doctors are finding out, that might have been delayed for days, weeks, even months after the initial blow. Heat stroke is very hard to prove, but it can destroy organs.

‘‘Listen, there are upwards of 100,000 surgical wounds in high school ball, with a 100 percent injury rate down to minor injuries. I find about 20 students each year who commit suicide or O.D. on drugs while playing football. Some of them have to be related to football, because painkillers became addictive, or because of head trauma.’’

One thing is certain. High school players have a death rate that’s three times the number of players at all levels. And it’s worth looking at why that’s true if we want to protect our youths.

It’s not just football. Ice hockey has an even higher rate of catastrophic injury, and their helmets offer minimal protection. Gymnastics has as high a rate.

Why are high school deaths in football so much higher than at other levels? The reasons run the gamut, but the essence of them is simple. By the time kids get to high school, they’re getting bigger and stronger. Many of the coaches still talk about ‘being a man’ and ‘walking it off’.

Some still limit access to water, assuring that their players will deal with heat strokes. They’re convincing their players not to report injuries in the name of ‘toughness’. Some, of course, are far more evolved than that.

Most high schools don’t have the budget for high-end equipment. Their players are working out in lower end gear. Since the brains of a human don’t mature until age 25, that leaves a long period during which the adolescent is at high risk for long term or even fatal damage.

Most fatal and permanent spinal injuries occur when a player uses his helmet as a weapon, such as in ‘spearing’. Teaching proper tackling technique is essential.

William P. Meehan III, M.D., FAAP, is a leading author. He’s also director of the Micheli Center for Sports Injury Prevention, Division of Sports Medicine at Boston Children's Hospital. His perspective is simple.

“We need to get rid of impacts to the head entirely in football,” Dr. Meehan said. “There’s no known benefit to an impact to the head, and it doesn’t need to be part of football. In rugby, head-to-head impacts are rare because it will hurt both players.”

Other studies and other experts have stated that rugby has as high a concussion rate as football. Although it’s commonly touted as ‘safer’ in terms of head injuries, that data is under attack - recent studies have disagreed. The concept behind it is not debatable, though. We need to reduce head injuries.

The American Association of Pediatrics has suggested that younger leagues should move to a non-tackling approach. I enjoyed flag football as a youth. There’s no reason that it wouldn’t work today.

However, even at a young age it may be necessary to teach proper tackling form, even if the youths won’t use it that year. If kids reach high school without knowing the basics of proper tackling form, it’s hard to get it across to them in the few weeks before competitive games begin. There isn’t enough time. The more they know when they get there, the less the chances of severe injury.

It’s not just head injuries, either. Knee injuries have become more common, especially for teenagers. The injury tends to happen when athletes perform sudden twists and turns. A new study says boys who play football, lacrosse and soccer are at higher risk of tearing their ACL. Girls playing soccer, basketball and lacrosse are most at risk.

The biggest concern that I find in high school sports, with an emphasis on football, is that only 37 percent of the programs have a certified trainer in attendance. That means there’s no one on the sideline who knows the modern protocols for determining a probable concussion.

Lots of players can walk after tearing a knee ligament, but they’re increasing the degree of harm when they do. Coaches aren’t trained to determine the severity of such injuries.

NFL quarterback Chris Simms once finished out a key football game with a ruptured spleen. That doesn’t make it smart or even rational. We owe it to our youths to have a qualified medically trained individual on hand when you practice a sport that involves pushing, striking, flinging other players to the ground and slamming into each other. There will be injuries. Some will be severe. Some will be fatal.

And many of them will be preventable. It’s past time that we sat down and worked out how to implement the game with a minimum number and severity of injuries. 7-year-olds don’t belong in helmets and pads. They shouldn’t be tackling each other. They should be protecting their developing brains.

The adults need to use theirs to put an end to this situation.

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Doc Bear is a Featured Columnist for MileHighHuddle. You can find him on Twitter @alloverfatman.

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