Thunderous helmet-to-helmet contact sent 16-year-old Damon Janes to the sidelines during the third quarter of a high school football game on Sept. 13. Within moments the teenager had lost consciousness and was rushed to a Buffalo hospital where he was pronounced dead three days later. Just weeks prior, 16 year-old DeAntre Turman suffered a spinal injury in a high school football scrimmage in Atlanta. The football stand out succumbed to his injuries shortly thereafter. It is in these most tragic of moments, moments where we lose our members of our promising youth, that we are forced to acknowledge the harsh realities of our habits.
It is an ugly fact of the game that football demands much of its players, sometimes going as far as to require the ultimate sacrifice. Though the sport has always been widely acknowledged as one rich in brutality, it is only recently that the violent nature has been brought so far to the forefront. This is because the medical world is still uncovering information about the long term damage of concussive, and sub-concussive blows to the head. Gone are the days of the 1990’s, when the football players laughed at the thought of having their “bell rung”, seeing stars, guessing how many fingers their trainer was holding up, or what day of the week it was after each heavy hit. We can no longer make light of a situation that is not laughable in any capacity. Recent patterns seem to indicate that frequent blows to the head, such as those experienced in football, are linked to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), and Parkinson’s disease. These diseases carry a slew of symptoms that range from neurological degeneration to self-endangerment and suicidal thoughts.
The NFL recently made rule changes to penalize helmet-to-helmet hits, and yielded $765 million to a lengthy list of retired players in a class action lawsuit in hopes of remedying years of cranial abuse, but what is to be done for incoming athletes? How can the entire football body collaborate to provide a safer environment for today’s peewee players who are just beginning their lifelong journey of tackles, blocks, and hits? As of now, the most effective way of protecting young athletes is to teach them the fundamentals of safety. Instructing young students of the game on the importance of tackling without using their heads will in turn provide a foundation for the future high school, college, and professional football players of tomorrow.
The Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) has led the charge for children’s safety in football. High school teams across the state are forbidden from practicing full contact with pads for the first two-thirds of practices during the season. The AIA hopes that the limited contact in practices will help to minimize the physical punishment and cranial shock accumulated by young athletes. In addition, many of these schools are reserving ample time to educate their players on tackle safety.
Though football will never be without physical risks, recent medical discoveries have demanded positive action such as that employed by the AIA. A retrospective view of the past 10 years of high school football reveals a sobering 25 deaths, 71 cervical injuries, and 78 cases of irreversible brain damage. Frankly, this is not acceptable. We have been blissfully tuning in to a battle with a beast that we do not truly understand, that of head trauma. But the immediate damages of our children, as well as the amassed damages of retired professionals, can no longer be ignored. The time has come for the sport of football, and its fans, to evolve.