“The glamourization of football and war lends itself to mistaken metaphors”, wrote sports journalist Jason Shoot in Spokane, Washington, Spokesman-Review. “Coaches are compared to generals and field marshals. Players are compared to seasoned and seasoned soldiers advancing through hostile territory. The untimely death of Dale Martin revealed a softer truth. Sometimes football coaches are just small, big-hearted men breaking down, and players too easily praised as young men are just boys, teenagers called upon to make sense of a growing world. more does not.
Dale Martin was 18 when he died of a brain injury sustained during a high school football game in early April. The Colville High School high school student was “the kind of kid who would always hold the door for you,” his coach said.
Five months later, Tyler christman, a 14-year-old freshman at Carthage High School in New York City, 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… no one should feel at fault.” The story unfolded under a photo of Christman wearing a hoodie, backpack and a big smile full of suspenders.
Next month, 17 Elie Gorham died after a hard landing while attempting a capture in the end zone for his team at Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School in Maryland; he remained on the ground for 45 minutes before being transported to hospital by ambulance. The ‘charismatic’ Gorham ‘was more than an athlete,’ said his coach. “Elijah was a really good boy through and through.”
This annual football injury film, our fifth, is a reminder that while Covid-19 has our attention, the chaos the sport brings to those like Martin, Christman, Gorham and all the other students who have been killed or injured in playing Football in high school should not be overlooked.
The military analogies described by Shoot permeate football and have a long history. a 1892 Harper’s Weekly The article described the sport as follows: “If there is one game suitable for training a soldier, it is this one.” He characterized football as “an imitating battlefield” in which the players had to show “a spirit of self-sacrifice”.
For more than a century, such views have shaped Americans’ understanding of the life lessons football is meant to teach young people. In football, as in war, young players are often expected to withstand significant physical damage and demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. The expectation that athletes will play through pain and overcome physical dangers has has often contributed inadequate monitoring of player well-being. Even today, successful high school football players are given nicknames such as “War dadsAnd glorified for having what it takes to “destroy their adversaries.” And the “next man” attitude, familiar with professional football’s response to often horrific injuries, is seeping into college and junior varsity football.
Martin, Christman and Gorham are just three of the players who have died on the pitch this year. There is also Jack Alkhatib, a 17-year-old player from Dutch Fork High School in South Carolina, who collapsed and died during training, as did a 16-year-old Antonio hicks from Citrus High School in Florida and 16 years old Ivan Hicks from Western Catholic High School in Pennsylvania. Drake geiger, a 16-year-old tackle for Omaha South High School in Nebraska, collapsed and died 10 minutes after training after his body temperature rose to 122 degrees. Dmitri McKee, 17, also died of heat stroke while training with his team at Robert E. Lee High School in Alabama in August.
The consequences of this warlike mentality can be devastating for the short and long term health of children. This week again, the journal Neurology published a to study which found that “white matter intensities” – lesions seen on brain scans that indicate brain damage – were more common in athletes with a long history of playing football and other contact sports.
- In a “regular football game” on September 3, Dohn Community High School (Ohio) senior Simeon “Tino” Whittle broke his neck after making a tackle moments after the match started, slitting his spinal cord and crippling him. Doctors at the time said some of his injuries could not be repaired, and as of mid-November he was still strapped to a breathing apparatus.
- In September, Joseph justice, quarterback for North Carolina’s East Henderson High School team, had one of the “scariest parts of his life,” the Times-News wrote. “I ended up pulling on the helmet… which made my neck bend awkwardly,” Justice said. Unable to feel his legs or squeeze the trainer’s fingers, he was rushed to hospital by ambulance, where he was diagnosed with a severe whiplash.
- With less than a minute to play in a game, second tight end mason Vicari, playing for Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento, Calif., lost consciousness and lay on the ground for 20 minutes before being transported to hospital by ambulance.
The glorification of risk goes so far as to celebrate the teamwork of young players helping get an ambulance out of the mud during a match. After a player from Grovetown, Ga. High school injured his neck, the ambulance that took him to hospital got stuck in the mud just off the field. “Different teamwork” got the vehicle going.
As always, this is only an incomplete overview of the many injuries suffered by children playing soccer. Yet this year’s Highlight Reel nonetheless vividly illustrates that it is high time to end the ethics of stoicism and guts that reign on the pitch.
Preventing tragedies like the ones described here will require the country – and not just players, schools and families – to address deeply rooted cultural attitudes that celebrate the dangers of high-risk collision sport for the children. Rather, we need to champion new narratives for youth sports that promote lifelong health, rather than pushing children to ignore pain and “destroy” their opponents. Children need and deserve playgrounds, not battlegrounds.
We should all refuse to see the deaths of children like Dale Martin, Tyler Christman and Elijah Gorham as the price to pay for playing dangerous sport.
Lisa Kearns is a senior researcher in the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. Kathleen Bachynski is Assistant Professor of Public Health at Muhlenberg College and author of “No game for boys: 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.