Traumatic brain injury and football is a hot topic on many fronts. The NFL recently acknowledged that it was aware of the long-term risks associated with pro football and traumatic brain injury after decades of denial, mirroring the tobacco industry’s similar failed tactic. NCAA officials are facing similar lawsuits from its former players who now suffer the long-term consequences of repeated blows to the head. Even with all of this recent media coverage, just last week, a major college coach allowed a quarterback to return to the game even though he could barely walk after suffering concussion like symptoms after a blow to the head. Now high school football is dealing with three fatalities suffered within one week.
In New York State, a player died after colliding with an opposing player, another student athelete collapsed and died in Alabama, and yet a third high school student died while warming up for a game in North Carolina. Some argue that given the sheer volume of high school football games accross the nation, this rash of fatal injuries is an anomaly, and that it is still extremely rare for a high school football player to die on the field. However, other studies show that high school football can actually be more dangerous than the pro or college game.
A recent study by the Arizona High School Athletic Organization showed that the rate of injury for high school football players exceeds that of collage and NFL players. Adding insult to the rate of this injury is the fact that many schools, at least in Arizona, do not have athletic trainers on staff to deal the high rate of injury.
There are many factors people cite for the increase in injuries. One simple fact is that high school players are bigger, faster and stronger than in the past, making for higher impact collisions on the field. Experts also point to the disparity in player size and strength. A weight differential of 100 pounds from one player to the next is not uncommon.
Many are now calling for formal tracking of high school football related injuries nationwide. The National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury at the University of North Carolina found that in 2011, 14 players nationwide suffered serious brain injuries while playing football; the highest number and 25 years. Some children’s hospitals will begin studies to track the frequency and severity of these injuries.
Preventative measures include lowering the frequency of high impact or “full contact” practices during the week, and closely monitoring player health to avoid cumulative trauma from traumatic brain injury.
Football on Friday night is deeply engrained in our culture, but the evidence is mounting that the risk of injury is real, and change is coming.