Jay Evensen: High school football will never be completely safe

By Jay Evensen, Deseret News

Published: Wed, Aug. 6, 2014, 12:00 a.m. MDT

 Nothing says autumn is approaching quite like the annual concern for the safety of young people engaging in what has become the national pastime.

Nothing says autumn is approaching quite like the annual concern for the safety of young people engaging in what has become the national pastime.


Last month, California lawmakers passed a bill limiting full-contact football practices for middle- and high-school players to two 90-minute workouts per week.

Not long after, the Utah High School Activities Association implemented a new rule requiring all athletes to have yearly physical exams, rather than only one during their high school careers. Coaches are to take special care to avoid heat-related stress among players, and they must be first aid- and CPR-certified.

Nothing says autumn is approaching quite like the annual concern for the safety of young people engaging in what has become the national pastime. With some sources estimating the number of annual concussions attributable to football at 140,000 (although, no one can be sure because the injury isn’t always diagnosed or reported), this is not a minor public health concern. Neither are the many other injuries tied to the sport.

And yet, kids keep lining up to play.

The trick is to separate facts from feel-good political acts. In this case, score one for Utah, at least for not imposing meaningless rules.

In California (and several other states with similar laws), a bunch of politicians with no special medical or athletic qualifications are imposing an arbitrary rule. Utah is probably being a bit more realistic.

Bart Thompson, assistant director of the Utah High School Activities Association, told me the extra physical exams have little to do with concussions. They are primarily to guard against heart problems — sudden cardiac arrest due to undiagnosed heart conditions.

This doesn’t mean, he said, that Utah officials are unconcerned with concussions. The rules already require coaches to be aware of the symptoms. It just means officials don’t want to impose rules that are meaningless.

Thompson said most Utah high schools don’t do much tackling at all during the week, once the season starts. To limit teams to two 90-minute full-contact workouts is to prohibit something that isn’t happening.

Experts say a lot of brain injuries occur during practice, but no one seems to know where to draw the line between the type of workout needed to teach safe tackling and excessive hitting.

Concussions result from sudden accelerations. The brain, like Jell-O, gets sloshed against the skull. Thompson said it can happen even when a player doesn’t get hit directly in the head.

Modern helmets “are designed to prevent a skull fracture, and they do a tremendous job of that.” They don’t prevent concussions, however, any more than headgear protects boxers from being knocked out.

All of which means it’s not so easy to limit head injuries in a sport where hitting and knocking other players down is fundamental.

A lot of this discussion echoes the ghosts of 109 years ago, a time when the sport’s brutality threatened its very existence; ghosts of people such as Teddy Roosevelt, or Professor Shaller Matthews, dean of the divinity school at the University of Chicago.

He was quoted in 1905 by the Chicago Tribune as calling football “…a boy killing, man mutilating, money making, education prostituting, gladiatorial ‘sport.’”

I don’t think many people would echo that today. But consider that, one year later, newspapers hailed the fact that “only” 11 players died during the 1906 season, with only 103 seriously injured.

Nearly 40 years ago, I played my senior season of high school football, ending grueling practices under the relentless sun in Phoenix. Our coach called us names for complaining about heat or thirst. Water was for wimps. If you got your “bell rung,” you were supposed to “shake it off” and get back in the huddle.

Despite all this, we eagerly showed up in August to make the team, just as young men showed up in 1905, knowing they might die for the sport. The game isn’t going away. Its collisions are as impossible to extract as it would be to remove eggs from a baked cake.

Coaches today know how to recognize symptoms. Kids aren’t deliberately dehydrated. The culture is changing. The trend is good.

But the reality is there is no way to make a full-contact sport completely safe.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his web site, jayevensen.com.

1. UtahBlueDevil
Durham, NC,
Aug. 6, 2014

Next thing you know we will be wrapping out kids in bubble wrap before sending them out the door.

I will admit, I coach football. And a lot has changed since I played some 37 years ago. Today, we have instituted "Heads Up" football. Will it prevent all injuries. Nope. Will it reduce the number. Yep.

But lets be real honest here. Football is a violent sport. But that does not equate out to the number of injuries and types. In a 2013 study, there were 1.35 million youth who visited the ER with some sport related injury - this is kids 12 - 19. Of those, 14 percent were related to a head injury. Looking at other sports for example, the report says "Among youth basketball players, for example, 11.5% of girls seen in the ER are diagnosed with concussions, compared with 7.2% of boys. Among soccer players, it's 17.1% of girls compared with 12.4% of boys."

Based on this, the next thing you know we will have our kids out there playing soccer with helmets on. We do need to protect our kids, but over protecting them can do as much harm.

2. liberal larry
salt lake City, utah,
Aug. 6, 2014

I think that high school football has reached a high water mark. Parents are becoming increasingly concerned as negative information on the sports effect on the body, and brain, is revealed.

My high school age nephews participate in swimming, track, and baseball, but their parents are steering them away from football.

I think football is going the way of boxing, and is will rapidly become a sport of the lower socio-economic classes.

3. Mark from Montana
Davis County, UT,
Aug. 6, 2014

I never played football in high school, though I was encouraged by the football coach. I choose other sports and today, some 35 years later I am very grateful I did. I did push my kids to play sports of any kind, but if they wanted to I supported them. I didn't need to discourage my son from football as he had no interest in playing it. If he had wanted to, I would have let him, but would have done everything possible to get him to change his mind.

Football is dangerous, as any real sport is, but with football you run the normal risks, torn ligaments, sprained ankles, etc. but on top of all that, there is the ever present danger of head trauma, with results that can last a lifetime. I can handle a permanent limp, a bad ankle or twisted fingers, but mood disorders, no memory, or the many other symptoms from head trauma are just not worth the 'glory' that comes playing football. Stick to other sports that are safer and just as rewarding.

4. Red
San Antonia, TX,
Aug. 6, 2014

"And yet, kids keep lining up to play"

Actually, there not! Kids are leaving football in droves! Lacrosse and other sports are taking them. Football is on notice. Time to shape up!

Head injuries are only one part of the reason. The main reason is overbearing parents and ego maniac coaches. Everyone thinks that their little boy is going to the NFL and they better get a jump start on things in 3rd grade and go crazy.

You are wearing the rest of us out....and your own kid too.

Let's get back to where football is fun and parents and coaches are not obnoxious clowns.

5. What in Tucket?
Provo, UT,
Aug. 6, 2014

Football may be on the way out. I did not want my sons on the football field, but the youngest went anyway, and was ok as a player, but once he had a neck sprain that was it. My first son wasn't interested, the second went to wrestling and track.