On Friday, 17-year-old Chicago athlete Andre Smith became the seventh U.S. high school football player to die during the 2015 season.
Witnesses told WGN that the Bogan High School senior was tackled hard and remained on the ground for several minutes before walking off the field. He complained of a headache and then collapsed at the team bench, his family told The Chicago Tribune.
He died of “blunt force head injuries due to a football accident,” early Friday morning, according to CBS Chicago.
“I don’t know what to do,” Andre Smith’s brother, Erick Smith, told WLS. “It just killed everything inside of me.”
According to the Illinois High School Association, Smith was the first high school football player to die in Illinois in three years and the seventh to die nationwide this fall.
“As anyone who has participated in athletics knows, there is a risk of injury any time a player steps on the field of play. Football, in particular, has been under the microscope over the last decade, and organizations at all levels of play, including high school, have been taking aggressive steps to try and reduce injury over time,” the group said in a statement on its website.
A Dangerous Game
In recent years, the dangers of football have gained attention. Concussion, Will Smith‘s forthcoming movie about repeated head trauma sustained on the football field addresses the issue, and a growing number of U.S. high schools have scrapped their football teams altogether due to safety concerns.
The total number of American high school students playing football has dropped by more than 25,000 in the past five years, CBS News reports. However, football remains the most popular sport for teens and children with more than one million high school students playing nationwide.
“What happens in our society is we respond to crises, so it takes something bad in order to produce something good,” Dr. Larry Curry, a sports psychologist at the Curry Center in Colorado told ABC 7 Denver. “Unfortunately, it’s not until we have serious injuries and fatalities that we begin to change laws and policies.”
According to a survey by the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, the 2014 high school football season saw five player fatalities directly related to the sport and six “indirect” fatalities due to causes such as heatstroke and water intoxication.
The numbers of young athletes dying from injuries directly related to football fluctuates from year to year, but has averaged around three for the past decade, the survey reveals.
“Certainly this is not going to be one of the low years,” Robert Cantu, medical director for the NCCSIR and a professor at the Boston University School of Medicine told CNN.
Additional Safety Measures
Despite this year’s string of tragedies, safety in high school football has been trending positively in the long term. The NCCSIR reported that the decade from 2005 to 2014 saw 31 fatalities resulting from head and neck injuries – a record low since data collection began in 1931.
These improvements are due to the efforts of many parties working together to reduce head injuries – from advancements in helmet technology to improved safety techniques. On Sunday, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued new tackling guidelines aimed at reducing head and neck injuries in youth football.
A Lesser-Known Risk
These guidelines focus on reducing the number of impacts to players’ heads. However, that can leave them vulnerable to fatal injuries to other areas. Amid widespread concern about head injuries, another group is working to raise awareness of abdominal injuries – potentially fatal blows to the liver, kidneys and spleen.
This charge is led by Brian and Kathy Haughen, parents of 15-year-old Taylor Haughen who died from a massive liver rupture as the result of a tackle.
As Taylor reached for a pass during a 2008 game, he was tackled by two players simultaneously and staggered off the Florida field, CBS News reports.
“They laid him down on the bench and he was losing color at that point,” Kathy Haughen recalled. He died from internal injuries the following day.
The parents said the risk of internal injuries was nowhere on their radar.
“Now I look at it and it’s like, ‘Why did I not see this?’ It’s an entire area of their body that has no protection at all,” Kathy told the news station.
At least one of the seven students killed this season died from internal injuries. Seventeen-year-old New Jersey quarterback Evan Murray died from a lacerated spleen in September after taking a hit to his midsection.
Since the death of their son, the Haugens have worked to protect other athletes from facing the same fate. To date, the couple has distributed over 3,000 shirts with protective midsection padding to middle and high school players in seven states.
An Immediate Solution
The risks of serious injury and death at the high school level are made graver by the lack of full-time athletic trainers at practices and games.
A 2015 study found that only 37% of the nation’s public high schools employ full-time athletic trainers, according to Journal of Athletic Training. These individuals are indispensible in assessing injuries and making decisions about players’ care in the critical minutes immediately following injury.
“Nearly all of the causes of death in sport are influenced by the care in the first five to seven minutes,” Douglas Casa, one of the study’s authors and a professor of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut told CNN.
Experts have called for high school football programs without the resources to employ full-time athletic trainers to be disbanded.
Even as improvements have been made, those mourning the loss of loved ones hope recent deaths serve as a wake-up call.
“This is an eye opener for all football players on all levels,” Andre’s brother, Erick Smith, told CBS Chicago.