In September, a 16-year-old high school football player from Brocton Central School District in western New York died after being knocked unconscious by a helmet-to-helmet collision during a game.
Less than a month earlier, another 16-year-old high school football player from the Fulton County School System in Fairburn, Ga., died after fracturing a vertebra in his upper spinal cord during a scrimmage, according to published accounts.
These cases demonstrate the urgent need for uniform football safety guidelines at all high schools, says Judy Pulice, the national manager of state legislative affairs at the National Athletic Trainers’ Association.
For years, the association has pressed schools to adopt its guidelines for preventing injuries such as heat stroke and concussion. In September, it renewed its call, re-releasing recommendations for coaches to penalize players who use the top of their helmet to hit other players, which increases risk of concussion and spinal injuries.
The organization is now giving Safe Sports School awards to districts that have taken steps to ensure the wellbeing of their student athletes. Recipients get a certificate and a banner to display in the gym, and digital artwork that can be used for fundraising. The goal is to have the winning schools serve as model programs.
“Football coaches will sometimes say, ‘In my day, I was fine without extra protection or rules,’” Pulice says. “But today, there has been a change in the culture. The players are bigger, high school games are often televised, and there is more competition with college scholarships on the line.”
Between 2003 and 2012, 25 high school football players in the U.S. died, according to the Annual Survey of Football Injury Research, which was prepared by the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina. Over that period, 78 high school players suffered brain injuries from which they did not fully recover, the center found.
The Safe Sports School awards go to schools that organize and rehearse venue-specific emergency plans. The award recipients also demonstrate a comprehensive system for providing health care to athletes, including coordinating pre-participation physical examinations, among other safety measures.
At press time, 68 schools had received the award, including all 25 high schools in Fairfax County
Public Schools in Virginia.
“It’s often up to individual principals to decide what guidelines are used in schools,” Pulice says. “Administrators are in the best position to implement strong rules for all schools in the district.”