High school football: a dangerous game [Commentary]

An Arizona high school football player's death this month from a traumatic brain injury follows a report that says a "culture of resistance" in youth sports prevents many players from reporting concussions — and many parents, coaches and school administrators from acknowledging the well-reported dangers inherent in the game.

Charles Youvella, a senior at Hopi High School on the Hopi reservation in northeastern Arizona, died on Nov. 11, two days after he was hurt on the field. His father is the school's athletic director, according to ESPN.


A recent report by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council found that high school football players suffered 11.2 concussions for every 10,000 games and practices — a rate nearly twice that for college football players and one researchers believe is artificially low because of a prevailing mind-set that encourages young athletes not to report injuries.

In fact, data show that the game of football at the high school and college level is associated with the largest number of catastrophic injuries among all sports.


The number of reported injuries has increased in recent years. According to the report, a quarter-million U.S. youngsters ages 19 and under were treated in emergency rooms for concussions and other sports- or recreation-related brain injuries in 2009, up from 150,000 in 2001.

While acknowledging an increase in the public's awareness that all concussions involve an injury to the brain, the report nevertheless concludes that "there are indications that the culture shift is not complete."

That it's not complete should be obvious to anyone who's been around the game of football — and seen and heard the hits.

But some researchers, especially those affiliated with the National Football League or Pop Warner football, are quick to say we don't have all the data needed to reach scientifically unassailable conclusions about the long-term effects of multiple concussions.

In fact, we do.

Parents, coaches and school administrators are well aware of the dangers of football as currently played. Yet they permit and even encourage children to take part in a game that, increasingly, is known to be dangerous, both in the long and short term. The children are conditioned to accept violence and self-sacrifice as part of the game.

The assumption is that "the game" is immutable — that it cannot be altered. But football, like all sports, is a made-up game. If we made the rules, we can change them too.

Indeed, in a 2001 Supreme Court opinion in the case of disabled golfer Casey Martin, who requested the right to use a golf cart during PGA tournaments, Justice Antonin Scalia stated that "it is the very nature of a game to have no object except amusement."


Justice Scalia attacked the notion that the game of golf — or any game — had fixed rules. Because we create the games we play, the rules of any sport are by definition arbitrary, with the only support for them being, in Justice Scalia's word, "tradition."

There is no question that youth sports, including football, provide important life lessons and physical benefits to participants. And in a society struggling with an epidemic of childhood obesity, we should not steer our youngsters away from sports and the many benefits that come from participation.

The answer is not to ban youth football. Instead, we should open our eyes to the mounting number of injuries and deaths — and the steady stream of revelations from people who grew up playing football and are now suffering the debilitating effects of all those hits.

Parents, coaches, schools and youth sports groups should act now to make needed changes to the "tradition" known as youth football and better protect our children.

Unlike many brain injuries, which are cumulative and irreversible, the rules of the game can change. And they must.

Dionne Koller is a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and the director of the Center for Sport and the Law. She can be reached at


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