New York teen dies after football collision: Is sport too dangerous?

The death of a New York high school football player Wednesday was one of three high school football-related deaths this week. Safety protocols have made the game safer since the 1970s, but the deaths point to a need for continued vigilance.

April Garon/AP
Charles Henderson High School students and football team members raise candles for their classmate, Demario Harris, at a candlelight vigil held at the school in Troy, Ala., on Sept. 27. Harris was injured on the field Friday night and died on Saturday.

The cheers filling stadiums have given way to prayer vigils and mourning for high school football players in three communities who died in the past week.

Tom Cutinella, a player for Shoreham-Wading River High School in Elwood, N.Y., sustained a head injury during a game Wednesday night and died following surgery. Demario Harris of Charles Henderson High School in Troy, Ala., died Sunday after he was tackled on Friday. And Isaiah Langston of Rolesville High School in Rolesville, N.C., collapsed during pregame warm-ups and later died.

It’s possible that some of these deaths will later be deemed only indirectly related to football, if the athletes had preexisting conditions. But they show the need for continued vigilance among parents, coaches, athletic governing associations, and lawmakers to ensure that sufficient safety protocols are being followed.

Such efforts have already paid off in lower rates of high school football fatalities in recent years.

In 2013, there were eight direct fatalities due to high school football, a rate of 0.73 per 100,000 participants, and another eight fatalities indirectly related, reports the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Before 1976, the annual rate of fatalities directly attributed to high school football was in the double digits. Since 1977, it has fluctuated between zero and 11.

In 1976, both college and high school national athletic associations made a rule against players making initial contact with the head or face during blocks and tackles.

As of January 2014, all 50 states have laws designed to protect athletes from concussions, writes Lee Green, a sports law expert at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kan., in an article posted by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Washington State’s law (the first one, in 2009) is considered the model. Among its many requirements: education for coaches and families about the nature and risk of concussions; immediate removal from play or practice for the rest of the day if an athlete sustains a concussion; removal from action if a player is suspected of having a concussion, until cleared by a specifically trained health-care provider.

Washington’s law is named after Zackery Lystedt, a high school football player who was removed from a game in 2006 after a head injury, but returned in the second half. During play, he collapsed. He survived his injuries, but it was more than three years before he could stand on his own.

California passed a law this summer limiting full-contact practice to three hours per week for high school football teams.

At the federal level, Rep. Tim Bishop (D) of New York proposed a concussion-protection law in 2013. “The current patchwork of state laws is not sufficient to keep our youngest athletes safe,” says Julia Krahe, a spokesperson for the Committee on Education and the Workforce Democrats, in an e-mail to the Monitor. “Every coach, team, and school in this country needs to make the protection of athletes their top priority."

Jack Costas, a member of the Shoreham-Wading River school board, told Newsday that safety will likely be a topic of Tuesday’s board meeting: “We’re a small community and we're all devastated.… We’re expecting to get a full report, find out exactly what happened and … if there is some way to ensure safer play, then, obviously we’re going to have to make some adjustments.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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