Is football too dangerous for schools to continue to maintain teams?

Research is showing that football poses not only immediate risks of injury to players, but lifelong brain injuries. Should high schools be in the football business? (Jason Getz/AJC photo)

Research is showing that football poses not only immediate risks of injury to players, but lifelong brain injuries. Should high schools be in the football business? (Jason Getz/AJC photo)

Interesting AJC story today about heat-related deaths among football players, of which Georgia has the highest reported incidences, according to a new UGA study.

The study found that overall heat-related deaths have tripled in the last 15 years and that most occurred in August and in  the eastern half of the U.S.

I had a recent discussion with a longtime national sportswriter about the disturbing research on football injuries, including studies that found NFL players who suffered concussions experiencing more problems with speech, memory, headaches and concentration. Another study by UNC’s Center for the Study of Retired Athletes found that pro players who had multiple concussions in their careers are more likely to suffer  depression.

This veteran sportswriter told me that he thought it was possible that football would someday not be played at the high school and middle school levels because of the dangers of lasting brain injuries.

In a column earlier this month, Joe Nocera of The New York Times wrote about the lifelong toll of football injuries. He interviewed retired players about their health challenges. I thought this passage was compelling:

After talking to Booth, I tracked down one other person from Super Bowl X: Jean Fugett, now a lawyer in Baltimore. “Would I play football again if I could do it all over again? Probably,” he said. “But I cried when my youngest son took a football scholarship.”

Today, says Fugett, he can’t sleep more than three hours a stretch without feeling pain somewhere in his body. He has no idea, he told me, how many concussions he sustained; back then, “you didn’t take yourself out of the game unless you stuffed two ammonia tablets up your nose and your head didn’t jerk back. That’s when you knew you were really concussed.” And he views himself as one of the lucky ones. Most of the former players he knows live with far more pain than he does.

Thanks to rule changes aimed at lessening the chances of career-ending injuries, football is a tad less dangerous than it once was. But it is still a game whose appeal lies in its violent nature. You cannot play football at the professional level without having it affect — and quite possibly shorten — the rest of your life. “I don’t think anyone should play tackle football before high school,” Fugett told me before getting off the phone. “Kids’ bodies are not  ready.”

“Flag football,” he said, “is a wonderful game.”

Back to the heath-related deaths. According to AJC reporter Joel Provano:

In the 15-year period before 1994, there was an average of one death per year nationwide; between 1994 and 2009 the number was almost three per year, according to the study, published in the International Journal of Biometeorology. Georgia had the most deaths of any state, with six.

Researchers found evidence that elevated morning temperatures and humidity may have contributed to the trend.

“In general, on days the deaths occurred, the temperature was hotter and the air more humid than normal local conditions,” said Andrew Grundstein, a UGA climatologist and senior author of the study. But Grundstein cautioned against assigning blame only to warmer temperatures and higher humidity, noting that players are much larger now than they were 30 years ago. Linemen, who are typically the largest players, accounted for 86 percent of heat-related deaths. “We all want a single magic number to indicate the heat threshold,” he said. “But so many factors contribute to heat stress that it’s impossible to draw the line at a single temperature.”

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

105 comments Add your comment

Pluto

February 28th, 2012
11:08 am

It sure is. WE as a country need to get less competitive in everything we do. I think tiddly winks would be a good substitute for football. I have to wonder how in the world did those in their 40s and 50s ever survive the abuse we were subjected to. As a lineman I was not allowed to drink water during practice in Augusta, Georgia in August. WE hydrated prior to practice and never had a problem. As long as the rewards for some outweigh the risks, there will be those seeking potential wealth. And why should we want to deny them a chance at a comfortable life. Hey I still bet driving to school is much more risky than playing football.

Roach

February 28th, 2012
11:13 am

Coaches and the media focus on “hitting,” not tackling. Equipment has evolved partly to protect, but partly for “the show.” Look at rugby–at least as violent as football,with groups of players linking arms and crashing into each other and with tackling at speed, and with less “protective” equipment. And yet, traumatic injury is much less common in rubgy than in football. Why is football so much more dangerous? Because of defects in coaching and equipment.

Ernest

February 28th, 2012
11:27 am

As long as big money is involved, we will not see an end to football as we know it today. I wouldn’t be surprised if GA relaxes some regulations that currently prevents teams from playing a national schedule or traveling further than the mileage from north to south GA. There are people that would pay BIG money to see some of our high schools play traditional football powers from across the country.

skipper

February 28th, 2012
11:29 am

We had to practice in the hot August sun. Coming from a farming community, we actually looked forward to practice as it got us out of the hay field! (Loading square bales….those big round ones were not popular yet.) Kids today stay inside in the AC, play video games and then jump out immediately to practice without any kind of “weathering” at all. I know kids are bigger, stronger, and faster now but we had full contact live scrimmages every day except one day before the game. While there are problems, certainly football, the most popular sport in the South should not be wiped out! Conditioning would help, for sure. As for concussions, proper tackling training (wrap-up, etc.) instead of head-hunting will slow those way down.

johnny too good

February 28th, 2012
11:32 am

Is flying an airplane too dangerous for us to use as a means of transportation?
Is skydiving too dangerous?
Is running with the bulls in some countries too dangerous?

Bottom line…. everyone knows the risks involved before they step on the field………
just like i know by getting in my car today there is a chance that i could be in a horrible accident
let those who wanna take the risk play the game

Metro Coach

February 28th, 2012
11:34 am

The AJC needs to take part of your paycheck for writing this worthless drivel. Our kids are turning into fat slobs and you’re advocating for the removal of some physical activity. Kids die of heat expousure because they sit inside all summer eating junk food instead of coming to workouts and then try to go full speed the first day of real practice in August. They get sick because they aren’t acclimated to the heat. There are plenty of rules in place concerning safe practice during the hot times of the year, and coaches who do not follow those rules should be fired. However, the vast majority do follow the rules and the fact that kids are still getting sick and dying is indicative of a problem with their exercise habits, not a problem with the sport they choose to play.

johnny too good

February 28th, 2012
11:48 am

I agree with metro coach…….. when i was in school there were no mandated water breaks, climate controlled practices, canceled practices bcuz of heat. America is getting softer everyday, u cant protect everybody from everything!

Maureen Downey

February 28th, 2012
11:49 am

@metro, You ignore the issue of brain injuries. I am surprised that any coach would not be interested in what we are learning about this issue.

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/15/sports/football/15brain.html?pagewanted=2&ei=5070&en=67dc01d0bdab2814&ex=1182571200&emc=eta1

God Bless the Teacher!

February 28th, 2012
12:10 pm

Maureen…really? You’re surprised that coaches aren’t interested?

Soccer Parent

February 28th, 2012
12:17 pm

In light of shrinking school funding, does anyone know how much a football program costs? Salaries, lights, buses, etc.?

Why is the City of Decatur Middle school adding football, when it adds an expense and put the students at risk?

Maureen Downey

February 28th, 2012
12:18 pm

@God Bless, I am surprised anyone would say so in a public forum. If I were coaching, and there was new research in my sport — made possible by advances in science — that showed troubling patterns of brain injuries, I would be concerned. I think this is a case where the fan affinity for the sport overrules the emerging research on the dangers inherent in the sport. I understand why the players want to play — as Joe Nocera notes, there is glory in playing football at the high school level and certainly at the college and pro level.
Is it worth a life of pain and health problems? It is hard to ask 17-year-olds to answer that question. They can’t imagine being 45 and crippled or dependent on pain killers.
But we should be able to ask the adults who run the football programs that question.
Maureen

Inman Park Boy

February 28th, 2012
12:20 pm

Well, I have no comment on Metro Coach. I am, however, a school principal who has worked in high schools both public anad private, from “A” to “AAAAA” for more than forty years. The biggest changes in those forty years have come in the schooll calendar (when I began in 1971, we didn’t even start school until the third week in August) and in the pressure on high school coahes at all levels to WIN at any cost. (Where does this pressure comne from? Why the parents, of course.) The early calendar has led to July and early August practices and as much as the GHSA tries to regulate this there are coaches all over Georgia who will practice in full pads whenever they want to regardless of GHSA rules. And now we’re playing games as early as the first Friday in August. Does anyone understand “unintended outcomes?” The second issue is harder to get at. I was principal of a large metro high school in 1980 and our team had gone through several years of losing records. The pressure on me to fire the coach (an outstanding teacher, by the way) was as intense as the pressure on him to quit. He ended up quitting and we lost a very good man to parental demand. (I was going to keep him if it meant MY firing.) This pressure on coaches has trickled down from pro to college to high schools, and probably even to youth football. Solution? Don’t start football games until the Friday of Labor Day week and don’t bend to parental will on firing good men and women aho love to coach young people but who may not win at a level appropriate to the community’s wishes. Who can do that? Men and women with good sense and integrity.

Happy Kine and The Mirth Makers

February 28th, 2012
12:25 pm

Just more food for fodder. Im providing a list of things that COULD kill and urge all to discontinue immediateley.

Baseball…ever been hit in the face with a ball traveling 90 mph?
Driving…yes parents you and your Precious little cargo could be ran into the ditch by some crazed maniac.
School…Ohio shootings. Need I say more.
Use if cutlery…ever been stabbed with a fork or had your eye gouged wou the a spoon? It happens every day.

Yes banning as much as possible will enable the american parent to more effectively raise their child as a panty wearing sissy.

MannyT

February 28th, 2012
12:27 pm

This is why the pros had to step up and push rule changes about hits to the head. The lower levels will not step up on their own, but they will eventually follow the NFL. Over time, the rules will adjust to protect the brain more. Technology will improve helmets…again (look at old pictures, no pads, masks, softer helmets)

Football is not going away, but it will change. As a society we seem to push focusing on career (and sports) at younger ages. Thus youth football stays as long as it looks like we are trying to protect the kids. Hydration breaks will be mandated, concussion rules will expand, less live hitting in practice, more medical professionals will be on site in youth leagues.

Hillbilly D

February 28th, 2012
12:32 pm

Coaches and the media focus on “hitting,” not tackling.

Excellent point and the NFL has done their part to encourage this trend, wittingly or unwittingly. Just look at what they emphasize on NFL Films. Watch any game and you’ll see quite a few instances of a guy missing a tackle because he was going for the “big hit”. Stop trying to flatten people and wrap them up; that’s fundamental football.

Improvements in helmet technology may also contribute to this. As the helmets have gotten better, more players lead with their head.

johnny too good

February 28th, 2012
12:38 pm

@Maureen……….Not sure if youre aware of this but there are injuries in every sport
ever watched a hockey game?
what about mma?
what about nascar, did u see the fiery crash last night at daytona? does anybody complain about the risks in that league? not to mention the gas they waste
what about boxing?
u cannot eliminate injuries in any sport
there is a simple solution to “concussion mania”……if people think the sport is too risky or dangerous dont step on the field of play

Dr. Craig Spinks/Georgians for Educational Excellence

February 28th, 2012
12:39 pm

Maureen, I hope your home address or phone number is not posted anywhere. For many FANatics, football is more important than religion and politics; for some, it’s more important than family.

Lince Vombardi

February 28th, 2012
12:46 pm

Manny T, you are wrong. Historically, the tail wags the dog in contact sports. Meaningful change flows upstream from youth sports to the professional levels. Youth programs are trying different helmet designs at a much quicker pace than professionals. Professionals certainly have access to better training methods, but they are notoriously risk averse when it comes to equipment design. If you look closely, you will see that the majority of professional players today do not wear pads below the waist at all. No thigh or need pads, no pad over the tail bone. And the NFL has allowed this to happen. That’s the type of leadership you get from the NFL. As younger players get exposed to better designs, they will demand it as they move up through the different levels.

hildymac

February 28th, 2012
12:47 pm

Heat related deaths and concussions are two different (and very preventable) things. Proper conditioning and a regular hydration schedule (as well as avoiding practice during the hottest part of the day) prevents the former and proper instruction as to how to play the sport minimizes the latter.

The advances in equipment meant to protect tend to give people a false sense of security, and folks hit harder as the equipment gets better — compare football to rugby, where they wear minimal protection. The injuries aren’t so much impact related as they are getting drug down and having your nose ripped off related.

They’re having this same debate in hockey circles right now due to the passing away of three enforcers this summer. Education about proper hits in professional hockey, as well as banning fighting and in some cases hits in youth and junior (as well as collegiate leagues) is helping. Why it’s so easy for hockey leagues to realize that they need to pay attention to how youth play the game to ensure safety at their (and eventually pro) levels and so tough for football leagues outside of the NFL to do so is beyond me.

There’s a clamor for hits in both sports, so don’t give me the excuse that “people want it more” in football.

Maureen Downey

February 28th, 2012
12:47 pm

@johnny, Speaking of hockey, please take a look at this story: This is part three of a heartbreaking series on the suicide of Derek Boogaard, an N.H.L. enforcer. There is a wonderful video that is part of this NYT series:

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/12/04/sports/hockey/boogaard-video.html#chapter/1

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/06/sports/hockey/derek-boogaard-a-brain-going-bad.html?pagewanted=all

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/12/04/sports/hockey/boogaard-video.html#chapter/3

Csoby

February 28th, 2012
12:51 pm

Hmmm…I thought the school system was about education..guess I am wrong as it is about entertainment with football being in the front of the line….maybe it should back to EXTRA activity and not the main reason we have schools…but wait The government has turned the schools into one big babysitting service…shame shame

Pink

February 28th, 2012
12:54 pm

Metro Coach and johnny too good remember the good ol’ days of the gladiator and they can’t understand why we no longer feed Christians to the lions, or at least some mooslims.

hildymac

February 28th, 2012
12:55 pm

The article on Boogaard is focused on the elimination of fighting and the role of the enforcer becoming obsolete, not necessarily on hits. There’s a difference between a guy who checks hard and a guy whose job it is to stick up for his teammates when something inappropriate happens on-ice. Boogey was the latter. His concussions were caused from repeated brain trauma due to punches, not from hits.

You want a guy who’s been concussed and will probably never play again thanks to a nasty hit, look up former Thrasher and current Boston Bruin Marc Savard.

johnny too good

February 28th, 2012
12:58 pm

@Maureen………… yes i heard about that story and read plenty of others about boxers and football players who have somehow went crazy or developed some brain issue becasue of injuries during the sport but…….
the same can be said about soldiers and police officers and firefigher with post tramatic stress, which has been know to cause mental/brain issues, but we wont stop sending them to battle will we? ppl voluntarily sign up for those occupations…… they are constantly forwarned during training; Just like in sports, athletes are repeatedly warned, especially with coaches and schools worried about potential lawsuits and media storms
guns are still sold in stores.
cigarettes and alcohol(survived prohibition) come with warning labels
all medicine comes with warning labels as well
escalators have instructions
the world is a dangerous place, let people take risks……. its their freedom to choose, even if it is risky or uninteresting to some

Maureen Downey

February 28th, 2012
1:00 pm

@Johnny, But do you think that schools should allow teenagers to make that risky choice. My question remains: What should the role of schools be in this?
Maureen

johnny too good

February 28th, 2012
1:03 pm

addtionally………. for every one of those guys who has brain damage, ask yourself how many walked away perfectly fine that you never hear about? what are the percentages that a person ends up with brain damage after playing? if less than 10 percent leave the game with brain damage than i say keep playing

Frankie

February 28th, 2012
1:04 pm

As a youth coach (ages 6 – 13) I can say we have not had one incident of heat related or concussion.
I think the issue is deeper than football, look at soccer it is a highly active non stop sport. Compare the number of heat related deaths to those of football. I would contend that we hear more concerning football.
The athlete themselves are also a part of the issue, their physical conditioning, and the size of their heart may also play into the heat related deaths.
The things we eat are addign more and more unnecessary hormones to our bodies which changes its make up.
I too can say that back in the late 70’s early 80’s we did not hear of any of these types of heat related deaths.
I believe it is a combination of things that take place, if it were not you would have more players on every team experiencing these heat related issues.

As far as concussions…coaches do teach the proper way to tackle, however, the glorification of the NFL has lead our players to try and emuate them and in turn create issues on the field when it comes to head injuries.
Comparing hockey to football is apples to oranges…football is a violent contact sport every 25 seconds, or less and with multiple opportunities to hit more than one person or be hit by more than one person…hockey has far more gaps of violent hits in between each up and down trek o n the ice….

tim

February 28th, 2012
1:05 pm

The study should take a look at all the crap parents feed their kids.Parents have gotten lazy about cooking…order a pizza, wings, burger king instead.

Years ago, our parents cooked dinner. There weren’t heat related deaths. Kids were in better shape then.

Today kids are fat, out of shape and lazy as hell.

Blame the parents and blame the kids. Don’t blame sports.

johnny too good

February 28th, 2012
1:07 pm

the schools should let it be the students and parents decision………. as it presently is, students and parents are given warning forms to sign along with their physical forms that clearly define and describe whatever sport theyre participating in.
I have many boys come to me and say that their mothers will not let them play for fear of getting hurt, and I repeat plenty

Frankie

February 28th, 2012
1:08 pm

I honestly think that at some point we will eliminate football from the younger ages (6 – 10) due to development issues and just change the high school to 11th and 12 grade in order to meet the college recruitment demand…
There are too many parents, boosters, coaches etc. that are looking to make a name for themselves and will do what ever is necessary to get their kid to the next level…
Take youth sports. (age 6 – 13), I have high school asst. coaches coming to my games every saturday during the season.

Frankie

February 28th, 2012
1:13 pm

@tim …this is true, however the sport has to see this as an issue and be more diligent to either eliminate those that are out of shape..

hildymac

February 28th, 2012
1:14 pm

Frankie, when they do hit each other they’re going up to 20 MPH and wearing significantly different padding. You get slammed into a wall that doesn’t give by a 200 pound guy doing 15-20 MPH and see how you do.

Or, better yet, get your head plowed into a stanchion by a guy who’s 6′9″ tall and weighs 225 lbs and see how you feel.

http://viewfrommyseats.com/2011/03/video-zdeno-chara-injures-max-pacioretty-with-dangerous-hit-worthy-of-suspension/

Google “Scott Stevens Paul Kariya” and tell me how that hit compares to anything in football. Hint: it doesn’t.

Hillbilly D

February 28th, 2012
1:14 pm

When I was a kid, Litttle League baseball didn’t start until you were 8 years old (this was before tee-ball). They start them too young now, in my opinion. If 4, 5 or 6 year olds want to play ball, just let ‘em choose up sides and play. I think all the uniforms and organizations are as much for the parents, as they are for the kids.

Frankie

February 28th, 2012
1:16 pm

@ vince L….i think the NFL has begun to require pads below the waist and they have an under armor type pant that has the padding in them albeit they are smooth visually not the traditional thigh and knee pad ..

Maureen Downey

February 28th, 2012
1:18 pm

@johnny, One of the problems is that the brain damage is being found through autopsies, so we are limited in what we can find out on how many players are affected. But I would ask this: If 9 percent of Honda pilots had engines that caught fire, would anyone say keep selling them? If a baby formula on the market sickened 8 percent of the infants who drank it, would we say keep it on the shelves?
I don’t think so.
Maureen

The Hammer

February 28th, 2012
1:34 pm

Simple solution: eliminate the equipment and the forward pass. Also, speed up the time between plays, and drop the system of four downs. A team maintains possession of the balls as long as it is not fumbled forward, and the only ways of moving the ball downfield are by running it, including non-forward passes and kicking the ball. Increase the number of players to 15, and reduce a touchdown to be worth 5 points and the extra-point to be worth 2.

Frankie

February 28th, 2012
1:38 pm

@maureen …understand question. however they wouold fix car engine and replace formula with new imporved and continue selling…
i do agree that changes need to be made on all fronts, age of player, diet, exercise regimine, equpment requirements, etc.

mt

February 28th, 2012
1:38 pm

So I guess your advocating doing away with football?
I don’t think so.

mt

February 28th, 2012
1:40 pm

The Hammer

February 28th, 2012
1:34 pm
Simple solution: eliminate the equipment and the forward pass. Also, speed up the time between plays, and drop the system of four downs. A team maintains possession of the balls as long as it is not fumbled forward, and the only ways of moving the ball downfield are by running it, including non-forward passes and kicking the ball. Increase the number of players to 15, and reduce a touchdown to be worth 5 points and the extra-point to be worth 2.

We already have that. It’s called Rugby.Bore us to tears>

flipper

February 28th, 2012
1:41 pm

Well, we need something to weed out the IQ gene pool, don’t we? The “football crowd” isn’t exactly brimming with astrophysicists, now is it?

johnny too good

February 28th, 2012
1:41 pm

@Maureen, true enough, but how many things in this world are perfectly safe?
But if we go down this path of restricting sports where does it end?
can kids run track? no they might sprain their ankle
cheerleading? no tumbling or flips?
baseball? no pitcher can throw above 50mph
should schools ban all sports for safety purposes?

dougmo2

February 28th, 2012
1:42 pm

Maureen, last I checked the parents of these kids have to sign off on them playing football. After all they are minors aren’t they. Also after reading your posts I have concluded that you also might get brain damage from reading your blog today.
Get a dog-name it Clue-then you will have one.

Maureen Downey

February 28th, 2012
1:42 pm

@To all, Take a look at this science blog, which took up this same question a while back. I liked this comment — which came as a response to the italicized comment — in particular:

Why should anything be done? If someone wants to play football they should be aware of the risk of concussion & other injuries and if they decide to play in spite of these risks, why is it anyone else’s business?

For the same reason we don’t allow children to be shaken as “discipline.”

Now, if you’re prepared to ban contact sports (including basketball, which is only called a “non contact” sport for laughs) then we might be in a position to talk.

Me, I’m a volunteer emergency medic. I’ve seen too many kids who will be lucky to get to 18 going for yet-another-ambulance-ride following a “routine concussion” thanks to high school football. Too many of them actually lose consciousness and then the coach has them back in the same game.

Remember: winning isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing.

http://scienceblogs.com/deanscorner/2011/01/football_helmet_hits_and_brain.php

mt

February 28th, 2012
1:47 pm

Go ask every one that has sustain an injury playing football.whether it be a concussion, being paralyzed,
loss of mobility,etc. and see if they advocate doing away
with football.I would be willing to bet even those that have brought suit against the NFL for concussions, don’t want to see that kind of action against football.

Maureen Downey

February 28th, 2012
1:48 pm

@dougmo2, Parents are also susceptible to the prospect of being clad in football glory. It is interesting to see this dismissive attitude on a topic that is being talked about all over the country and by the medical profession. That some folks seem unaware of it or contemptuous of it is a poor reflection of priorities.
Maureen

guest

February 28th, 2012
1:50 pm

Playing football is voluntary. You accept the risks as soon as you step onto the field. Personal responsibility, people.

mt

February 28th, 2012
1:55 pm

Too many of them actually lose consciousness and then the coach has them back in the same game.

What a crock of crap. I’ve been around football all my life and I have never heard of any coach putting a kid back in the game after losing consciousness.A bad ankle
or even a separated shoulder yes,never unconsciousness.

BT

February 28th, 2012
1:57 pm

Are you kidding me? Another example of a whimpy society and knee jerk reactions!!. These concussions have been around forever and you have EXPERTS who have probalby never played the game making these judgement calls on others behalf.

Guest, i agree with you…playing football is voluntary.

should football be banned at the HS level?

February 28th, 2012
1:58 pm

[...] necessarily new with regards to dangers of football, but just something to get thoughts on . . . Is football too dangerous for schools to continue to maintain teams? | Get Schooled Reply With [...]

Metro Coach

February 28th, 2012
2:03 pm

Mauree, the AJC article was about HEAT CAUSED DEATHS, not brain injuries…and for the record, I coach basketball.