Football participation drops as death toll rises

State & Regional

 High school football is not just a sport in Texas, it’s a way of life, but fewer players are playing under the Friday night lights.

“We will not be playing football in our house, yea, we will not be,” Dr. Daniel Howard said he already made that decision for his six-year-old son.

“The sport with the most injuries is football, by far, not even close,” Dr. Howard said.

Since July, eleven high school football players have died in the U.S. including a 16-year-old in East Texas.

According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, seven of those deaths were directly related trauma suffered on the field.

“Anytime a student passes away it’s a tragedy and we never want that to happen,” said Kate Hector, spokesperson for the UIL. “Parents should always evaluate the risks that they are worried about and make the decision that’s best for their family,” said Hector.

The UIL, or University Interscholastic League, oversees all sports at Texas public middle and high schools.

The UIL has increased the helmet regulations and shortened the calendar for contact play but sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of football-related deaths for high school players.

“A sports physical is a very simple visit, a form is filled out and that is it,” said Dr. Howard. The pediatrician said sports physicals can give players and parents a false sense of security. “Very basic, very fast,” Dr. Howard said parents think the “okay” to play means a clean bill of health, but that’s not always true.

He recommends all athletes undergo a wellness exam—a more comprehensive check up to spot health concerns that could get overlooked during a sports physical.

Chiropractors are on the UIL’s list of medical providers approved to sign off on a player but Dr. Howard said a chiropractor doesn’t have the training to identify a heart abnormality, something he said would generally show up during a wellness exam.

Bills that would have required EKG testing to try detect heart abnormalities in Texas athletes have failed during the last two legislative sessions.

Hector said those discussions will likely continue—the UIL’s medical committee reviews its policy every year. Hector said the panel of doctors on that committee did not think EKG test were necessary, mainly because of fears of false positives and also cost.

“I’m not ready to say that the UIL is worried about people not playing football, especially in Texas—that’s just not a problem at the moment,” said Hector.

National Federation of State High School Associations reports participation in high school football in Texas has declined for five consecutive years, down nearly 3 percent since 2010, despite the state’s population growth.

Hector would not speculate whether or not safety concerns are the cause of that drop but said safety is always the UIL’s biggest concern, not participation rates.

Texas continues to lead the nation in athletic participation rates nearly more than 800,000 students—nearly 164,000 of them on 11-man football teams. 

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