News about concussions and other injuries to young football players appears with alarming frequency, as do reports of the long-term damage to NFL players.
Young pro players are leaving the game for fear of permanent harm to their brains and bodies. Last month, Joshua Perry discussed his retirement at age 24 after suffering six concussions. He’s following in the footsteps of A.J. Tarpley, who retired at age 23, also because of concussion concerns.
In March, USA Today called for a ban on tackle football for kids under 14, and one month later the journal Pediatrics reported results from a survey in which a majority of parents who responded supported age restrictions on tackling.
Still, as our third annual Football Injury Highlight Reel attests, the injuries keep coming. As in the 2018 and 2017 editions, this year’s emphasizes injuries among youths, because those under 18 represent the overwhelming majority of football players in the United States. We include pro stats as a comparison and to indicate the persistence and prevalence of injuries.
College football injuries, which number in the several hundred already this season and include a number of season-ending injuries, could easily fill their own article. On Tuesday, the New York Times ran a feature exploring whether the millions of fans of college football “worry about the physical price its players pay.”
This year we also include concussions, both because of the threat to developing brains they pose and because they have been the subject of so much reporting over the past year.
These reels are just a snapshot of the monthslong football season. This year we scoured news reports for Nov. 4-10 and for NFL Week 10 (Nov. 7-11).
In Louisiana, West Ouachita High School linebacker Luke Middleton suffered a head injury after a collision with an opponent and was taken to the hospital by ambulance. “Doctor said he doesn’t think there’s any spinal damage or internal bleeding,” Middleton’s mother posted on Facebook the next morning. “Chalking it up to bad concussion at this moment.”
In Colorado, during an “injury-laden playoff game,” Moffat County High School quarterback Ryan Peck was sidelined after helmet-on-helmet contact. His sub lasted two downs until suffering a knee injury that left him unable to get up from the field and was eventually taken to the hospital for X-rays and care. “When it rains, it pours,” Moffat head coach Jamie Nelson said.
In Florida, a Tampa Bay Tech High School player suffered a concussion, was taken off the field by stretcher, and spent the night in the hospital after an opposing player suplexed him. That’s a pro wrestling move, illegal in the NFL, in which a person lifts an opponent over his head and slams him to the ground.
In South Carolina, James F. Byrnes High School quarterback Lawrence Scott left in the second half of a game with a hand injury. In the first half, teammate Quintin Talley team went down, leaving teammates “[bawling] their eyes out when he got hurt.”
Some especially horrendous injuries occurred outside the sample week. In early October, 16-year-old Dylan Thomas, a linebacker for Georgia’s Pike County Pirates, died following cardiac arrest resulting from “traumatic brain injury due to or as a consequence of a closed head injury.” In late October, two Pennsylvania high-schoolers suffered devastating injuries on the same night: Kennard-Dale High School lineman Patrick Maloney collapsed on the sideline after hitting his head during a game. He underwent emergency neurosurgery and was airlifted to another hospital in the middle of the night; four days later his mother noted that he was “awake with limited communication … he knows it’s 2019.” Also that evening, North Schuylkill High School quarterback Jaden Leiby was tackled severely enough during a championship game to require airlifting to a hospital, where he was listed in critical condition.
Over in the NFL, despite a 24% reduction in concussions in 2018, Week 10 injuries were dominated by this injury. New York Giants offensive tackle Nate Solder left the game with a concussion, while teammate Janoris Jenkins was evaluated for one. Detroit Lions running back Ty Johnson and right tackle Rick Wagner left the game with concussions. Green Bay Packers cornerback Tremon Smith and linebacker Ty Summers both left the game with suspected concussions. And Josh Kline, a right guard for the Minnesota Vikings, sustained his second concussion of the season. (More than 30 of their league mates have suffered concussions this season.) Leaving their games and not returning for non-head injuries were Chicago Bears linebacker Danny Travathan (elbow), Los Angeles Rams center Brian Allen (knee) and cornerback Darious Williams (ankle), Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Ryan Switzer (back), and many others.
This single week adds to the more than 500 injuries pro players have sustained so far this season. As of this writing, Vikings defensive end Hercules Mata’afa was still out after suffering a cervical spine injury in October, while Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier remains sidelined after suffering a spine injury in a head-on hit in 2017 that left doctors uncertain he would walk again. And as of mid-October, Redskin quarterback Alex Smith had undergone 17 surgeries since breaking his right fibula and tibia in a “gruesome” injury last November.
Just two weeks ago, the school board in Marshall, Texas, voted unanimously to bring back tackle football for seventh-graders, five years after a ban had been imposed. Marshall High School coach and athletic director Jake Greidl convinced the board that the game was safer due to “new rules, more medical attendants at the games and expanded training for coaches in modern tackling methods and concussion protocols.”
This approach to youth football safety, dominant among coaches and administrators, implies that modified tackling techniques and adult supervision can reduce the risk of a collision sport to an acceptable level for middle schoolers. This claim, however, lacks any convincing evidence. A parade of severe injuries at all levels of the sport — even when played under the watchful eyes of trained health professionals — suggests there are inherent injury risks in football that even the best coaching and supervision cannot minimize.
In 1907, the Journal of the American Medical Association editorialized that football was “no game for boys to play.” More than 100 years later, boys — and a growing number of girls — continue to collide with one another on football fields across the United States. Their equipment today may be more sophisticated and their tackling techniques more refined, but the result is still a pile of concussions, torn ligaments, broken necks, and shattered bones.
When does the risk become too much? Is the answer different for adult professionals versus school age children?
As Americans prepare to watch their favorite Thanksgiving football matchups, these important public health questions regarding the welfare of children demand answers.
Kathleen Bachynski is an assistant professor at Muhlenberg College and the author of “No Game for Boys to Play: The History of Youth Football and the Origins of a Public Health Crisis” (University of North Carolina Press, November 2019). Lisa Kearns is a senior research associate in the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone Health School of Medicine. Arthur Caplan is professor of bioethics and director of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone Health School of Medicine.