“The glamorization of football and war lends to misguided metaphors,” wrote sports reporter Jason Shoot in the Spokane, Washington, Spokesman-Review. “Coaches are compared to generals and field marshals. Players are likened to hardened, battle-tested soldiers advancing through hostile territory. Dale Martin’s untimely death revealed a softer truth. Sometimes football coaches are just modest men with big hearts that break, and players too easily lauded as young men are merely boys, teenagers asked to make sense of a world that increasingly does not.”
Dale Martin was 18 years old when he died from a brain injury sustained during a high school football game in early April. The Colville High School senior was “the kind of kid who would always hold the door for you,” said his coach.
Five months later, Tyler Christman, a 14-year-old freshman at Carthage High School in New York, also died of a head injury sustained during a football game. The opposing coach told People magazine that “it was just a regular JV football game … nobody should feel at fault.” The story ran beneath a photo of Christman wearing a hoodie, with a backpack and a big smile full of braces.
The following month, 17-year-old Elijah Gorham died after a hard landing while attempting an end zone catch for his team from Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School in Maryland; he remained on the ground for 45 minutes before being taken to a hospital by ambulance. The “charismatic” Gorham “was more than an athlete,” said his coach. “Elijah really was a good kid through and through.”
This Annual Football Injury Highlight Reel, our fifth, is a reminder that while Covid-19 has our attention, the mayhem this sport brings to those like Martin, Christman, Gorham, and all of the other students who have been killed or injured while playing high school football must not be neglected.
The military analogies that Shoot described permeate football and have a long history. An 1892 Harper’s Weekly article described the sport like this: “If there is any game fitted to the training of the soldier, it is this one.” It characterized football as “a mimic battle-field” in which players were expected to display “a spirit of self-sacrifice.”
For more than a century, such views have shaped Americans’ understanding of the life lessons that football is intended to impart to young people. In football, as in war, young players are frequently expected to withstand significant physical harm and demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice for the greater good. The expectation that athletes play through pain and overcome physical hazards has often contributed to inadequate oversight of players’ welfare. Even today, successful high school football players are granted nicknames like “War Daddies” and glorified for having what it takes to “destroy their opponents.” And the attitude of “next man up,” familiar from pro football’s response to often gruesome injuries, percolates down to middle school and junior varsity football.
Martin, Christman, and Gorham are just three of the players who died on the field this year. There’s also Jack Alkhatib, a 17-year-old player for Dutch Fork High School in South Carolina, who collapsed and died during practice, as did 16-year-old Antonio Hicks from Citrus High School in Florida and 16-year-old Ivan Hicks from West Catholic High School in Pennsylvania. Drake Geiger, a 16-year-old tackle for Omaha South High School in Nebraska, collapsed and died 10 minutes into practice after his body temperature reached 122 degrees. Dmitri McKee, 17, also died from heat stroke as he practiced with his team from Robert E. Lee High School in Alabama in August.
The consequences of this warrior mentality can be devastating for the short- and long-term health of children. Just this week, the journal Neurology published a study that found that “white matter intensities” — lesions seen on brain scans that indicate injury to the brain — were more common in athletes with long histories of playing football and other contact sports.
- During a “regular football play” on Sept. 3, Dohn Community High School (Ohio) senior Simeon “Tino” Whittle broke his neck after making a tackle moments after the game began, splitting his spinal cord and paralyzing him. Doctors at the time said some of his injuries can’t be repaired and, as of mid-November, he remained tethered to a breathing machine.
- In September, Joseph Justice, quarterback of North Carolina’s East Henderson High School team, experienced one of the “scariest plays of his life,” wrote the Times-News. “I ended up taking a shot to the helmet…causing my neck to bend in an awkward way,” Justice said. Unable to feel his legs or squeeze the trainer’s fingers, he was taken to the hospital by ambulance, where he was diagnosed with severe whiplash.
- With less than a minute left in a game, sophomore tight end Mason Vicari, playing for the Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento, California, was knocked unconscious and was down for 20 minutes before he was taken to a hospital by ambulance.
The glamorization of risk goes so far as to celebrate the teamwork of young players helping push an ambulance out of the mud during a game. After a player from Grovetown High School in Georgia suffered a neck injury, the ambulance taking him to the hospital became stuck in the mud just off the field. A “different kind of teamwork” successfully sent the vehicle on its way.
As always, this is just an incomplete snapshot of the many injuries sustained by children playing football. Yet this year’s Highlight Reel nevertheless vividly illustrates that it’s more than past time to retire the ethic of stoicism and guts that rules the field.
Preventing tragedies like the ones depicted here will require the country — not just players and schools and families — to address deeply rooted cultural attitudes that celebrate the dangers of a high-risk collision sport for children. We must instead champion new narratives for youth sports that foster lifelong health, rather than pushing children to ignore pain and “destroy” their opponents. Kids need and deserve playing fields, not battle fields.
All of us should refuse to treat the deaths of kids like Dale Martin, Tyler Christman, and Elijah Gorham as just the cost of playing a dangerous sport.
Lisa Kearns is a senior researcher in the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. Kathleen Bachynski is an assistant professor of public health at Muhlenberg College and 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). Arthur Caplan is professor of bioethics and director of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine.
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