The deaths of 19 football players in a single season precipitated a national crisis in 1905, an event Doris Kearns Goodwin touches on in a new biography of president Teddy Roosevelt. There were 28 reported deaths some seven decades later, when James Michener created a stir with “Sports in America.”
“But there is no cry to end football, nor will there be,” he wrote, “because every society decides what it is willing to pay for its entertainment.”
So far this season, at least six kids have died playing high school football. Writer Matt Chaney makes a persuasive argument the real number is nearly five times that — and would be higher still if not for incredible advances in trauma care. He could be right. The fact is the numbers at every level of amateur football have always been open to question.
Remember that if one of the breezy “Football Safety Clinics for Moms” turns up in your neck of the woods.
The 90-minute presentation is jointly sponsored by the local NFL team and the league, part of a charm offensive launched to combat the growing body of science on the dangers posed by concussions to even the youngest players. The aim is to convince families to allow kids, some as young as 5, to play tackle football, thus ensuring a steady flow of talent in the pipeline.
It’s bad enough that the moms’ clinic in Chicago last month never touched the topic of how many kids are killed or broken playing football every year. And worse that it included a demonstration of what’s called “Heads-Up” tackling, a technique that claims to teach kids and coaches how to avoid head and neck injuries — as if such a thing were practical in real games, instead of practically impossible.
But the picture gets even worse after looking at the research collected by Chaney, whose 2009 book “Spiral of Denial,” focused on the use of performance-enhancing drugs in football. He argues the numbers used to frame the debate are even worse than most of us suspect.
Researchers used to compile them from newspaper accounts; now they conduct their searches online. The most widely-cited authority on youth fatalities these days is the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research. It found 243 deaths from a variety of causes among college and high school football players recorded between July 1990 and June 2010 — an average of 12 per year.
At the lower levels, reporting is even worse. Pop Warner, the umbrella organization for nearly 300,000 of the nation’s 3 million football-playing youngsters, is one of the most responsible youth sports programs around. It wasn’t until last year, however, that it began its own research survey to determine how many youngsters actually suffer concussions each season because previously, the only way to track them was through Pop Warner’s medical insurers, which reported exactly seven for all of 2011.
Beyond the six reported deaths in high school football already this season, some players succumbed two days after their initial injuries, one remained in a coma for two weeks and another for seven. A handful suffered cardiac arrest. Autopsies concluded several had complicating factors and pre-existing conditions that contributed to their deaths. Chaney, who began analyzing news reports and collecting data for “Spiral of Denial,” contends not every one becomes part of the NCCS database.
“When a high school football player gets killed in a collision, that makes news,” he said. “After that, it can get iffy. There’s a large realm of cases that never get proven either way.”
“A number of parents, for example, believe playing football drove their kids to drug overdoses and suicides. But those are never included by anyone. ... Yet you always hear someone say, ‘The benefits outweigh the risk’ as if it were a fact. It’s pretty much the standard line kids and their parents are fed at every level.
“For the pros, maybe,” he added. “For the rest of us, you just have to live long enough to know it’s not always true.”
Chaney, 53, used to be a football guy. He walked on at Southeast Missouri State in the early 1980s, shredded his knee in practice, then started taking steroids to recover and earn a spot on the field. He never did. Chaney segued into a student assistant coaching job and helped players on the team get PEDs, a past he’s not proud of today.
After writing and teaching the last two decades, he began researching catastrophic injuries in youth football three years ago. Whatever the right numbers are, Chaney is certain football’s day of reckoning isn’t that far off. He might be right about that, too.
Youth coaches, leagues and their insurers are already being sued in a number of places by players who suffered catastrophic injuries, and their parents. Last week, a 15-year-old named Donnovan Hill, who was paralyzed following a collision in a 2011, claimed in a lawsuit that he was taught an unsafe “head-first” tackling technique by his coaches that was prohibited by both the league and the Pop Warner governing body, but never enforced.
“Awareness of the problem made a difference, but only a small one. Brain injuries are terrible, I think we all understand that now. But it hasn’t discouraged too many parents from having their kids play — yet,” he said. “What could change it, though, is money.
“All those emergency room visits and trauma care costs insurance companies plenty and I think, given the squeeze on resources and higher health-care costs, we’re getting close to the breaking point. At some point, football is going to become too expensive for a lot of families and even communities to play. It will be interesting to see what kind of campaign the NFL rolls out when it does.”
Chaney won’t try to predict when that day will arrive, but he thinks you can see it from here. He may be right about that, too.