July 15, 2019
Some parents have had their kids stop playing football due to the risk of concussions among the sport's players. But it's not the games that people need to worry about – it's the conditioning.
Most non-traumatic fatalities among high school and college football athletes happen during conditioning sessions due to overexertion, sometimes from punishment drills, according to a new paper presented at the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine Annual Meeting.
Dr. Barry P. Boden and his team examined non-traumatic fatalities between 1998 and 2018 through depositions, investigations, autopsies, media, and freedom of information reports. Of the 187 deaths discovered during this 20 year period, 150 deaths occurred in high school and 37 deaths in college. Most of the fatalities, 87%, happened during a practice or conditioning session. The majority of the deaths happened outside of the regular season and were most common in August.
Fifty-two percent of deaths were caused due to cardiac issues, 24% resulted from heat, and 5% were caused from asthma. The report also found that 23% of fatalities resulted from sickle cell trait. SCT can seem like a relatively benign condition, but individuals with SCT are prone to sudden death during periods of extreme physical exertion.
There were three commonalities shared in every fatality: The conditioning sessions were supervised by the football coach or strength and conditioning coach. These sessions were considered to be "irrationally intense" workouts or drills. The staff did not offer proper medical assistance.
Dr. Boden commented on the findings and added, “Conditioning-related fatalities are preventable by establishing standards in workout design, holding coaches and strength and conditioning coaches accountable, ensuring compliance with current policies, and allowing athletic health care providers complete authority over medical decisions."
High school football is still one of the most popular sports for males aged 14-17 — though not quite as popular as outdoor track. Despite this, participation has declined in recent years. In 2017, participation across the U.S. dropped 1.9% from the 2016-17 season. New Jersey saw a 6.8% decline in high school football participation in 2017 alone.