Sports view: Should high school football be eliminated

tsj column writers - sports viewBy Jordan Kobritz

With the traditional Thanksgiving Day games behind us and only a handful of teams remaining in the playoffs, now may be an opportune time to ask:  Is it time to eliminate high school football?

Two University of Minnesota doctors have answered that question in the affirmative.  Doctors Steven Miles and Shailendra Prasad have come out in favor of eliminating football in the nation’s schools in an effort to reduce the pressure on students to play a sport fraught with danger.   They made their recommendation after examining studies of football-related concussions on adolescent brains.  

In a statement highlighting their findings the doctors cited figures that should be troubling to every parent of an adolescent football player.  “Five to twenty percent of students experience at least one concussion in a season of play. Nine to twelve year old players experience an average of 240 head impacts per season; high school players average 650 head impacts per season,” they said.  

To support their recommendation to end the sport in schools, the doctors went on to say, “The brains of children are more susceptible to long-term damage from concussion than adults. Although the frequency of concussion in football is about the same as in hockey, fifty times as many students play football than hockey; football causes far more brain injuries. The brain is an irreplaceable organ, the health of which is foundational for the ability to learn, socialize and for fully realizing life’s physical and vocational opportunities.”  

The doctors acknowledge that banning youth football would be unrealistic, but Dr. Miles said if non-school leagues were substituted for school leagues, coercive pressures on students to play football would be eliminated.  In order to accomplish their goal the doctors recommended that health professionals oppose the use of public funds to construct football facilities for junior and senior high schools.  Other measures the doctors believe would reduce the attraction of playing the sport included opposing public school programs granting academic credit for playing football and excused absences for practice or games.   

Deaths related to high school football are rare – 11 this year from July 1 through November 5. And tragedies occur in other sports as well.  But according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina, the death rate for high school football players is more than three times the overall rate for those playing the game at all levels.  Furthermore, the long term damage from repeated concussions playing football is unmatched by any other sport.  Anyone familiar with the concussion lawsuit brought by thousands of former NFL players needs no reminder of that ominous prediction.  

Not everyone supports a ban on high school football.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recently called for preserving tackle football but recommended changes designed to make the sport safer.  None of those recommendations would result in major changes to the game currently being played, but the AAP did suggest increasing neck-strengthening exercises and other approaches to reduce concussion injuries.  

The Minnesota doctors aren’t the only ones who have voiced concern about the future of high school football.  

Roger Blake, Executive Director of the California Interscholastic Federation, sees ominous clouds on the horizon.  In a conference call with reporters in early November Blake said, “I think honestly — and I say this in all sincerity — I think high school football, we’re at a critical juncture in the next two to three years.  I really think we’re going to have to watch and look at the medical science and see what the medical community says about the future. We’re seeing it across the United States. I think we’re really in a critical juncture.”

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, participation numbers in football declined by approximately 10,000 in 2014.  Whether the decline is attributable to concussion concerns is unknown, but participation in youth football programs such as Pop Warner is also falling.         

Can high school football be made safer?  Some experts recommend changes to the kicking game; others point to the paucity of athletic trainers at high school sports.  According to the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, only 37% of U.S. public high schools have full-time athletic trainers, an appalling and inexcusable number.  Which begs a question:  If schools don’t have an athletic trainer, should they even have a football team?

(Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner.  He is a Professor and the Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland. Jordan maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com and can be reached at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.)

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