CHAPEL HILL, N.C.
Eight young U.S. football players, including seven in high school and one playing in a Pop Warner league, died last year as a direct result of injuries suffered on the field, according to a new study published by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Three other players died of heatstroke during the 2001 season, and 12 others died in ways not directly tied to the game but more from natural causes provoked by vigorous exercise.
The UNC faculty member who led the study called the heat-related deaths “just unbelievable” because 20 young men have died in that manner since 1995. Last year, one death occurred in high school, one in college and one in the National Football League.
“We are concerned about all these deaths of course but especially those that resulted from heatstroke, which are almost always preventable,” says Dr. Frederick Mueller, professor and chair of physical education, exercise and sport science. “Coaches, players and even parents need to remember how to prevent these tragedies, and that’s not hard to do. The current rash of avoidable deaths is very much like the toll we used to see years ago before managers and other helpers started giving players water anytime they needed it.”
Mueller, chairman of the American Football Coaches’ Committee of Football Injuries, directs the UNC-based National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injuries. Every year, the center issues reports on deaths and severe injuries from amateur and professional sports.
Reports are based partly on newspaper stories from around the United States collected and submitted by about 150 volunteers who monitor sports accidents, along with information from the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Six of the “direct” deaths resulted from brain injuries, one from a fractured neck and one from a ruptured spleen. The study also revealed six cases of permanent paralysis from neck injuries — all among high school students — and two permanent brain injuries.
Shorter practices and non-contact drills during which players don’t wear helmets can help prevent heatstroke and reduce accidents, Mueller says. Players should be allowed as much water as they want, and coaches should schedule regular cooling-off breaks.
A Yale University faculty member began the yearly football death and injury survey in 1931. It moved to Purdue University in 1942 and has been at UNC since 1965. The American Football Coaches Association, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the National Federation of State High School Associations sponsor the study.
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