Reducing High School Football Concussions
Recently, while at a high school football game, I noticed a few players on a team who repeatedly engaged in helmet to helmet contact, such as head butting and spearing: when one player runs into the face of another, leading with the crown of his helmet. All of these actions can cause serious injury and even death. A recent tragedy occurred in southern Illinois when a high school football player who had been concussed was at home eating dinner a few days later and suddenly slumped over dead. A latent aneurysm, provoked by the concussion, led to his death.
Football coaches must train players to make hits that are legal, not above the shoulder, and engage in sportsmanlike conduct. However, there are some coaches who are less motivated to teach avoidance of helmet contact than others, even though strict guidelines for safe contact have been in place for decades.
It is usually incumbent upon the officials at football games to notice these improper hits and issue penalties. But penalties aren't always given. Some officials allow more violent play than others. They may have personal preferences that cloud their judgment. There are two ways to begin to control this issue. One is to allow officials more ways to punish players for unsportsmanlike behavior. For example, an official can throw a flag against a specific player, as they do in soccer and hockey, and then remove the player from the game. A first offense can result in a loss of 15 yards and the removal of the player from the game for ten minutes. A second offense, removal for the entire game, and a third offense disqualification for 3 future games, and so on. Players who receive three major citations for unsportsmanlike behavior in a year can be disqualified from contact sports entirely.
Another option would involve local law enforcement. Recently, I was at a high school football game where the local police scouted the student body and removed those who they felt were engaging in inciteful speech. But at the same game, on the football field, players could engage in helmet to helmet contact, or spearing, and the police were powerless to respond. It's an interesting American cultural phenomenon to note that police have power over language in the stands, but absolutely no power to regulate or remove players engaged in violent behavior. But unlike the fans who are engaged in nonviolent speech, football players' behavior may result in serious bodily injury, permanent disability, and death. The traditional chalk line on the football field also functions as a limit on police powers.
One cure for this would be to make the state, through its officials, legally liable for improperly-called games. For example, if a video shows that a player engaged in helmet to helmet contact and the play was not called, the official could be cited and fined; providing the official can be shown to be in close proximity to the play. It is very interesting that in the U.S. anyone can sue police for incompetence, false arrest, and so on; but no one is able to sue football officials for incompetence when their lack of vigilance results in someone's son suffering a serious lifetime brain or spinal injury, or death.
High school officials, and the public high school state organizations (In Illinois it's the IHSA, Illinois High School Association) want to be in absolute control of high school sports. They become very defensive and belligerent when anyone threatens their control. Police officers have no such immunity from criticism or prosecution.
Yet if public school officials in high school football games want absolute control, they should be held absolutely accountable for how effectively they supervise games. Their defense can be that they made a reasonable effort; the same standard applied to law enforcement. If the police point out an offense that the official didn't notice, the police can make the call. This may be awkward to implement at first, but politicians are obsessed with the value of one life when it comes to gun control. The control of sports violence should also be a high priority, since it is in public view, can be verified by video recordings, and protects the community.
For example, it can be implemented this way: local police can watch the game and note examples of unsportsmanlike conduct that can result in serious injury. They should have the authority to call a timeout, and review a video tape playback -- virtually all high school games are videoed these days -- to determine if excessive force or illegal contact occurred. This would take the exclusive power to make calls of unsportsmanlike conduct out of the hands of officials and place it in the hands of police officers who have much more experience in judging violent behavior.
Because police now have the power to remove students simply for unsportsmanlike verbal behavior off the field, they should have the power to remove players on the field whose violent behavior is being ignored by public officials; officials who may have a personal preference for who wins or loses a given game. However, local police may have their own biases. So perhaps a panel of three: the head coaches or trainers from each team, and one state official or doctor, can review an instance of unsportsmanlike behavior cited by police. Anyone who feels that these impositions will cause delays and inconvenience may only consider the delay and inconvenience caused by failing to stop at a stop sign. The inconvenience may not cause excessive delays. Once a new system like this is in place, the most violent players and teams will soon be cited and corrected, and inconvenience reduced.
High school officials and state administrators will vehemently resist what they will perceive as an intrusion upon or usurpation of their absolute authority. But the occasional incompetence of high school officials demands a more stringent set of standards for accountability, and an outside source of feedback. If players are held out of games for minutes, as they are in hockey, perhaps the impact on their play would be more constructive. In major league baseball, coaches can be thrown out of games. Perhaps coaches can be thrown out of football games if they fail to reprimand players for unsportsmanlike behavior, or if there are certain conditions met; for example, three citations for unsportsmanlike behavior in one game.
Spinal injury, brain injury, and death are as serious as any matters can be. They are particularly tragic when they occur to healthy teenage boys. These injuries suggest that high school football needs to be more carefully supervised and regulated than it is now. Empowering football officials with more procedures to remove offending players, and allowing police to observe and note instances of violence, may be an effective way to stem the tide of injuries.
Workable policies must be put in place that allow offenders to be removed from games so that no father, ever again, will sit at dinner with their teenage son and witness him dying from a latent aneurysm caused by a head injury sustained in a football game.