Sport Safety

SPORT SAFETY: Has HS Football Become an Endangered Species?

The last few years have been a rocky time for HS football players – and for their parents as well.

So far this season, eight HS football players have died while participating in the sport. Clearly, no one ever wants to go through the heartache of watching a teen-aged son collapse  — and die — when playing a sport he loves. What an absolute nightmare.

Then, of course, there’s the ongoing troubles about the lingering effect of concussions on kids who play football. Despite the growing awareness of this issue, the reality is that no one has invented a football helmet yet that can truly claim to prevent concussions. Minimize the impact of concussions, yes. But prevent or eliminate them? No, that hasn’t happened yet.

All over the country, the numbers of kids playing HS football continue to spiral downward. In most states, the numbers are down by 10 percent. Many HS programs with a long-standing tradition of having plenty of players are now realizing that their ranks are dwindling.

There are all sort of explanations for this, but most football coaches and AD’s suspect it’s the worry about concussions, and in some cases, the fact that a few kids die each year from playing the sport.

The Double Whammy of Death and Concussions

I asked the question on my radio show this AM: What do you think is the future of HS football? Will it eventually go away due to health concerns?

What was surprising is that I received several calls from Dad’s who said that yes, they loved football, they played HS and college football, and they are doing okay these days without any medical or memory issues. But they also said that they had deep concerns about letting their son play the same sport. You could hear the worry in their voice. On one hand, they knew all about the positives of playing the sport, but when they saw their 9-year-old suffer a hit to the helmet, or a 14-year-old suffer a concussion in a game, they worried about whether  – as a parent – they were doing the right thing in allowing their kid to keep playing.

Other Dads pointed to the fact that other alternative sports, like soccer, basketball, or even lax, all had similar issues with concussions. That is, just telling your son to play a different sport may not be the answer.

In terms of football deaths, I did point out that, statistically, HS football is much safer than it was than, say, in the 1960s, when in a typical year, you had 20-30 HS football players die. In recent years, it’s more like 12 deaths on a yearly basis. (I guess that’s somewhat comforting, unless of course, it’s your son who has collapsed on the gridiron.) And the deaths can be from any number of causes: heat stroke, broken spine, ruptured spleen, severe concussion, aneurysm, and so on.

What’s the right response?

So what do you do if your young son comes to you and says that he want to play tackle football? There is one of the toughest questions that any sports parent will ever face.

There is, of course, no one tried-and-true answer. But there are some things to consider:

> Esteemed neurosurgeon Dr. Robert Cantu, who is an expert on NFL concussions, says that kids shouldn’t start playing tackle football until they’re at least 14. Why? So that their neck muscles have developed enough strength to help prevent concussions.

> Emphasize to your son that he has to first learn the basics of how to tackle properly. This is essential. Leading with one’s head on a tackle is extremely dangerous.

> Explain to him what a concussion is, what it feels like, and most importantly, to have the guts to tell the coach that you think you just had your bell rung. We all know that most football players refuse to come to out of a game after a hit to the head. That mentality has got to change.

> And finally, explain to your son that if he incurs 3 or more concussions during his HS football career, then no matter how good he is and how much he loves playing the football, the time has come to walk away from the sport.

Tough love? Perhaps. But in the long run, you may be saving his life.

  • Joe Frederick

    Rick- while I agree that concussions are a huge concern, I’m not 100% sure as they are the overwhelming reason as to why numbers are down as that concern is more for the parents than the players. We know how influential and persistent kids can be when they want something bad enough, so maybe the KIDS are a big reason as to why the numbers are down.
    Football is a unique sport where players practice significantly longer than the amount of time that a game is played. At the youth level, kids practice anywhere from 4.5 hrs to 6 hrs per week to play in one 40 to 48 minute game. Most leagues have a “minimum player” rule for rosters- meaning that they have to have X amount of kids on the sideline for games. As we know, youth football has become more and more competitive. Along with that comes the need or desire to win. As a result, it is common for playing time for “less skilled” players to be kept to the league minimum.
    Given that teams have a roster requirement, most programs are forced to take significant numbers of kids KNOWING that the are going to get the rule minimum number of plays which translates into a few minutes of game time. Therefor, the kid that makes the practice time investment of 4.5 to 6 hrs a week only plays a few minutes. So maybe by the time those same kids get to high school where there’s not even a guarantee they play….practicing 2 hrs a day for 5 days a week is just not worth it?
    Just my thoughts.

    • Rick Wolff

      Joe – I couldn’t agree with you more. Yes, parental fears about concussions are definitely causing a slide in football enrollment, but I do believe kids are beginning to realize early on that all the practice time might not be worth their while if they aren’t going to get much playing time. It’s a shame, to be sure, but I’m certain kids are leaving the sport for that reason as well. Coach Wolff