High school football championships will be decided this weekend in Kansas and Missouri. Thousands of fans will flock to watch young athletes play games that emphasize running, throwing — and plenty of hard hitting.
More than a few parents and friends will worry about the young men on the field. Will they suffer a cracked rib? A broken finger? Or a concussion?
So far this year, 11 high school football players have died for various reasons across the United States. On average, about a dozen players die annually. Stories in the national media indicate that, more than ever, adults are asking reasonable questions about the future of the sport and how it must change to become safer. Then there’s the ultimate question: Should my child even play it?
Locally, a recent Star story about former Harrisonville High School football standout Michael Keck brought renewed attention to the issue. After Keck died at the age of 25, researchers found an advanced case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in his brain. In athletes, the progressive degenerative disease is found in those subjected to brain trauma, most commonly in the game of football.
The CTE Awareness Foundation notes that other sports such as boxing, hockey and soccer also can expose youngsters to “the type of sub-concussive, repeated head injuries that are linked to CTE.”
In response to concerns, some responsible steps are being taken at the youngest levels of football, such as teaching athletes safer tackling methods.
But, as critics aptly note, there’s insufficient evidence that these methods are working. That raises the bigger question of whether players under, say, high school age should even be involved in the sport when it involves tackling. Flag football, with no head-to-head contact, is a safer alternative.
The fates of Keck and others show there are good reasons not to celebrate, as so many fans do now, the bone-crushing hits they see on field. Helmets offer insufficient protection from repeated blows to the head. Many players don’t want to be taken out of games, no matter how woozy they feel. And coaches often don’t recognize the physical toll the game takes on players.
Football at all levels must seek ways to make the game safer, even if it means fewer of the dramatic, hard-hitting plays that thrill crowds. But ultimately it’s up to parents and young athletes to decide whether the benefits of playing a team sport such as football outweigh the chilling possibilities of physical or mental injuries.