February 12, 2016 • FootballSports Medicine

Between the Lines: Debate over football safety not going away

Spend some time watching film of football games during the 1940s and you’ll find yourself asking one question: How did anyone survive?

Kevin Hoffman

Sure, tackling techniques and body sizes were drastically different in those days, but the equipment was primitive and offered little protection from serious injuries. One tackle or an awkward landing could have easily broken bones.

It’s peculiar that those same concerns linger today, despite the evolution of rules and protective gear. But this is a game where players wear helmets and deliver blows similar to those experienced in car crashes, so few of us are surprised by the number of injuries reported each year.

The focus this fall was on the number of deaths. At least eight high school football players died from injuries related to the sport, so we’re again pondering what we did wrong, where we can do better, and who is responsible. The truth is football is a violent game. We can work to minimize risk, but it will never be eliminated. That can’t stop us from trying.

Only once in the last 20 years have we finished a high school football season without any deaths directly related to an on-field injury, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research. We’ve improved helmet design, instituted rules against targeting and advanced our medical knowledge, yet here we stand pondering what can be done differently.

While we can’t eradicate the risks that naturally exist in football, we can make improvements in how we identify at-risk athletes and respond to injuries. Members of Congress introduced a bill during the fall that would force the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to come up with new measures to safeguard athletes, but in the end we can only do so much.

Efforts like these must be made at the local levels. That begins with schools admitting athletic trainers are a critical part of a program and every bit as crucial as the equipment players wear on the field. Without an athletic trainer overseeing your student-athletes, the program is already failing to do its best in keeping players out of harm’s way.

We also have a tendency to be reactionary when we should focus on preventative measures. That might mean we institute mandatory heart screenings for athletes, or spend more time training to make certain that players are prepared to handle the physical nature of contact sports.

We also can’t be afraid to put safety first. At least half a dozen programs called off their seasons this year to avoid risking the health of their younger, inexperienced players. The coaches did what they had to, despite objections from the community and even their own players.

Statistics show that today fewer players are suffering from debilitating injuries like concussions, but that’s not going to silence the voices calling for more scrutiny in how the game is played. Some of it is warranted, some is not, but it’s fair to say we’re still not doing everything in our power to make the game safe.

If history tells us anything, it’s that more players are going to get hurt and we’ll continue to have these conversations. Don’t let that stop you — coaches, athletic administrators, athletes — from asking questions and suggesting solutions. Discussion will always be healthy.

Kevin Hoffman is the editorial director of Coach & Athletic Director. He can be reached at [email protected].

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