This week the New York Times ran a feature piece on Jeff Charles, a high school football coach who left the game after one of his players was killed during an October 2011 Friday night game. The player, Ridge Barden, was a defensive tackle for Homer High School in Homer, New York – a cerebral hemorrhage was listed as the cause of death. He was later cremated and Charles has some of his ashes.
It’s a haunting article because of the undeniable dangers that surround football: 19 high school players in the last 4 years have died from brain related injuries received during a game; brain trauma in the NFL, which is tied to the repeated blows players receive to their head, has destroyed the lives of many stars (think Kenny Stabler).
The National Center of Catastrophic Sports Injury Research tracks figures related to fatalities in football – fatalities due directly to football, fatalities due indirectly to football, heat stroke fatalities, etc. Going back to 1931, the American Football Coaches Association conducted its first annual survey of football related fatalities. This continued until 1977 when the NCAA formed what has morphed in the current NCCSIR. In terms of monitoring and analyzing these numbers, there is probably no better or more professional source.
Most recent results note the huge numbers of football participants: over 1 million in high school, another 100,000 in post high school (NFL and others), and 3 million in some other leagues (sandlot, flag football, etc.). In total, there are more than 4,200,000 football players in the United States at any given time. There is a very small percentage of chance that a truly tragic event will occur, but even rare tragedies need to be studied so that further resolutions for safety can be developed.
Recent improvements focus on four areas: conditioning, skills, rules, and equipment.
Obviously, athletes must be given the correct conditioning exercises which will strengthen them to withstand the violent contact which occurs.
Good tackling, fundamentally sound blocking, and other coaching drills aimed at proper execution may be the single most important ingredient in reducing tragic events.
Rules such as the recent prohibition against spearing, need to be correctly enforced by officials at all levels. The notion that the helmet is a weapon or should be used to initiate contact is inviting mayhem.
Finally, with the improvements in the equipment (which are ongoing), it’s incumbent upon coaches to make sure that their players are properly protected.
Heat strokes have only been studied since the late 1950’s and the results have not been routinely observed. It is believed that since 1995 some 61 players have died from this malady: 90% of these deaths have occurred during practice. There are definite proper precautions and procedures that schools and coaches need to take when practicing in extreme weather. Prevention clearly works here.
Other precautions such as thorough pre-participation physicals, hydration, and advanced emergency planning are all areas that are constantly being overseen.
While researching this blog, we looked at injury trends in Major League Baseball. Surprisingly, only one player has ever died in a MLB game: Ray Chapman, 1920. Many fans of a certain age remember when Tony Conigliaro was beaned in the head and had to retire, but he is not counted as a fatality.
Some interesting data did emerge. For example, there is no doubt that injury rates are on the uptick. Between 1998 and 2015, there were an average of 464 DL placements per season. That translates into over 460,000 days lost to injury, and what a staggering financial drain: the annual cost is above $423 million. MLB has its work cut out to develop better strategies for discovering the causes of these afflictions, providing better prevention, and improving treatment.
In summary, injuries in sports are inevitable – prevention is now in the spotlight.
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