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Two schools in the Bryan ISD in Texas were the inaugural recipients of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association Safe Sports School award launched earlier this year. (Photo: Bryan ISD Sports Medicine Department)

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.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates between 1.6 and 3.8 million adolescent athletes experience brain injuries each year.

New helmet sensors are helping high school football coaches identify students at risk for concussion by recording the severity each time a player is hit in the head during a game.

Jeff Brown, right, athletic trainer at Flower Mound High School in Texas, tends to an injured football player during a game.

With the start of football and the rest of the 2013-2014 school athletic calendar, districts are looking at new laws and training recommendations to help avoid deadly health problems among the 7.5 million students who will play high school sports this year.

Pay to play has become the new normal at many public high schools strapped for cash. And while the practice is prohibited in such states as California, it has taken hold in others. “Our community seemed to understand the value of strong athletic programs,” says Chris Bigelow, director of student services for the Northshore School District in Bothell, Wash., which instituted participation fees several years ago after state budget cuts. “Every student who desires participation in our sports program has the opportunity” for scholarships who can’t afford it, he adds.

The glory days of high school sports are no longer reserved for dream team athletes, as athletic directors are increasingly opening up sports to all students, regardless of ability, and seeing winning results on the field and off. 

Though professional athletes have access to top healthcare professionals and state of the art facilities, tightening budgets in U.S. school districts often leave high school sports participants without protective services or proper care after injury. To address this problem, the Youth Sports Safety Alliance, a group of more than 100 organizations committed to the safety of young athletes, released the first-ever “National Action Plan for Sports Safety,” a guide for districts to protect student athletes.