Tom Cutinella, a junior middle linebacker at Shoreham-Wading River ( , N.Y.), died Wednesday night, hours after suffering a head injury in a game earlier in the day.
His death was the third high school football-related death nationally in four days.
If you’re an athlete, parent or just a football fan, this should concern you. Despite all the recent education regarding concussions, despite rule changes, despite better equipment, high school football players die every year, doing what they love.
There have been at least seven football related deaths this season, with more than two months to go. Eight players died last year from causes considered directly related to football, the greatest number since 1986.
Football is a collision sport, not just a contact sport, so it will never be as safe, as say, bowling. But that’s not the same thing as saying it can’t be made safer. We shouldn’t look at this spate of deaths, shrug our shoulders and then forget them until the next wave.
At a news conference Thursday, Shoreham-Wading River superintendent Steve Cohen said the school’s athletic director would lead an investigation into the circumstances, including a review of equipment and safety procedures. He said the injury was a “freak accident” and “was the result of a typical football play.”
That’s part of the problem. A typical football play is often like getting into a car crash, with players tackling with the force of 1,500 to 1,700 pounds. And the players getting hurt are, more often than not, the players doing the tackling, not those getting hit.
The causes of the three recent deaths are not yet fully known, pending autopsies.
Cornerback Harris Jr. of Charles Henderson (Troy, Ala.) collapsed following a tackle during a game on Friday and died Sunday. His father posted on Facebook that his son had a brain hemorrhage “that was caused by a hit he took during Friday’s game” and said it was possible his son had a pre-existing condition but “there is no way to tell now.”
“These kids are part of our family, and we’ve lost a son,” Charles Henderson principal Boyd English told the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser. “It’s just like losing a son. There’s no other way to put it.”
Offensive lineman Isaiah Langston of Rolesville, N.C., died Sunday. He had collapsed during pre-game warmups Friday. An official cause of death has not been announced, but his brother, Aijalon, told a North Carolina television station his brother’s death was related to a blood clot in the brain. School officials have declined to comment citing a request from the family.
Funerals for Harris and Langston are scheduled for Saturday. Funeral arrangements for Cutinella have not been set.
According to the annual Catastrophic Sports Injury Research study, more high school athletes die from football-related injuries than from any other sport. Part of that is a function of participation and the time of year. Most football-related deaths come in preseason workouts, often the result of heat-related illnesses or pre-existing heart abnormalities.
It’s not easy to detect heart abnormalities, even with sophisticated equipment such as an EKG, but many physicals are so cursory, heart conditions are often missed. Heat-related illness is avoidable, experts say, through preventative steps.
It is head injuries, though, that remain in the spotlight.
All the talk about concussions in recent years might have led to the sharp decline in the number of players in youth football, but last year, the numbers of high school football players were up for the first time in five years.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 1,123,852 athletes competed in high school football during the 2013 season. That puts football ahead of basketball with 974,398 participants, counting boys and girls.
For comparison, three high school basketball players died after collapsing on the court last year and all of those deaths were related to pre-existing heart conditions.
“When we look at football overall, it does have the highest rate of injury and the highest rate of concussions,” said Dawn Comstock, an associate professor at the University of Colorado’s Colorado School of Public Health. She has been helping track sports injuries for the past decade through the National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance Study. “The good news is since we have been monitoring football, the overall injury rates have decreased and last year, for the first year, there was a slight downward trend in concussions.”
Comstock said the reduced incident of concussions can be attributed to greater education about and awareness, more stringent rules and better helmets and helmet use. But the heart of many football injuries is tackling and one way to curb injuries, both minor and catastrophic, would be to have fewer full-contact drills.
“If you really wanted to prevent the vast majority of injuries in football, you could do that if you took away tackling, but then it wouldn’t be football anymore,” Comstock said. “We have to understand the culture of football includes tackling. Understanding and respecting that, how can we reduce injuries? Half of the concussions happen in practice, so if you reduce contact in practice, you cut down significantly down on the risk. I do think we are seeing progress, but these recent deaths are a tragic reminder we need to keep working toward that goal.”