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Anna Ayers

Closer Than They Appear: Fatal early season in high school football reminds us of the toll sports has on athletes

Is the atmosphere of youth and college sports becoming too high risk? Fifth death since start of high school football season says maybe so.

There are some things in life that are easy to fall in love with, but don’t always love you back. Playing the sports so many high school and college athletes love has been giving out what seems like an increasing number of doses of “tough love” lately.

Since the start of the high school football season in early September, five high school players have died as a direct result of football, with the sport being linked to even more indirect fatalities.

In 2014, the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research estimated that there were more than four million football participants in the U.S., from Pop Warner leagues to the National Football League — and only six deaths reported to be a direct result of on-the-field incidents. Those numbers are staggeringly small in retrospect, but nonetheless immensely tragic.

The point is not that football can kill you. Or even that getting hit with a pitch in baseball, colliding with another player in soccer or the boards in hockey could all potentially take your life. The point is that the games we play are not always, in all ways, good for us. The ways in which they are bad for us are becoming more apparent as time unveils fatal and non-fatal results.

In order to continue to grow up playing sports as children, and even pursuing them along with an education in college, many athletes are going to face a different sort of competition as the sports they love evolve into more safe and controlled “fields.” Most of the evolution does not need to occur within the rulebook or even on the field necessarily. The atmosphere of youth, high school and even college athletics is what needs to be changed in many cases to help prevent injuries and is much more capable of changing than the foundations of the sports themselves.

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It is not uncommon for an athlete to tell you they have played through an injury, and in many contact sports, often that injury was concussive in nature. Many players, starting as young as sixth or seventh grade, are becoming specialized, single-sport athletes. Yet, studies conducted by medical research firms and universities across the country have proven time and time again that specializing in a single sport makes young athletes much more susceptible to injury. It is customary as well for many players to feel the pressure to “send a message” by playing dirty or fouling hard as an intimidation tactic. And time and time again, as can be seen on any given Saturday in college football, these “hard hits” are celebrated on the sidelines.

The reasoning for such attitudes gripping the sports many of us grew up playing or still enjoy everyday is simple: the game is everything, so you must give everything — only the price really being paid for that mantra is agonizing.

If change is not made to the atmosphere of sports, it will not be long before more athletes follow in the footsteps of former standout NFL linebacker Chris Borland, who retired after one year in the league because he feared the permanent brain damage he could incur by continuing to play.

If high school athletes who have the potential to be stars in college begin to see more long term benefit in not playing, what would that mean for universities across the nation who thrive off of those talented individuals? If it becomes clear that the atmosphere sports’ currently has will not change, will more parents decide not to let their kids pay? Or is it possible that more kids not want to play?

Anna Ayers is a freshman studying journalism and finance. What do you think of the early season football injuries? Email her at

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