Six Football Players Died In 1997 Season: New Study

July 07, 1998

CHAPEL HILL - Six young football players - all high school students -- died across the United States last year as a direct result of injuries suffered on the field, a new University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study shows. Eight other players also died, but those fatalities were not directly tied to the game and could have resulted from other vigorous activities.

"Five of the six injury deaths resulted from damage to the brain, while the other came from a blow to the chest that caused the boy's heart to stop," said Dr. Frederick Mueller, professor and chair of physical education, exercise and sport science at UNC-CH. "Seven of the indirect deaths were heart-related, and one was from heatstroke."

Mueller, chairman of the American Football Coaches' Committee of Football Injuries, directs the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injuries, based at the university. 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, along with information from the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the National Federation of State High School Associations and about 150 volunteers who monitor sports accidents.

The study also revealed seven cases of permanent paralysis from neck injuries among high school students, one to a college player and one to a professional athlete. Another seven high school football players and one college player suffered permanently disabling head injuries. Twelve young men completely recovered from catastrophic accidents during games or practice.

"Players need to be reminded often, especially by coaches, that the head has no place in football," Mueller said. "No player should make first contact with his head when blocking and tackling. That's against the rules, but more importantly, it's dangerous."

In 1968, 36 young men died after injuries in practices or in games. Mueller said. The drop in deaths directly attributable to football resulted from rule changes adopted in 1976 that prohibited using the head as the first point of contact.

Shorter practices and non-contact drills during which players don't wear helmets can help prevent heatstroke and reduce accidents, he said. Players should be allowed as much water as they want, and coaches should schedule regular cooling-off breaks.

"In the past three years, we have seen seven heatstroke deaths," Mueller said. "That's troubling because such tragedies are just about entirely preventable."

Eight players died from heatstroke in 1970, the highest one-year total, he said. Before 1955, no heatstroke deaths were recorded among football players. Few schools and homes had air conditioning, and thus it is likely players were better able to tolerate hot weather.

Mueller and other experts strongly recommend pre-practice physical examinations for boys -- and the small number of girls -- who want to play football. Such exams sometimes reveal hidden conditions that make heavy exertion hazardous. Parents should make sure their children are insured against catastrophic injury and that medical assistance is available during practice and games.

A Yale University faculty member began the yearly football death and injury survey in 1931. It was moved to Purdue University in 1942 and has been at UNC-CH since 1965. The American Football Coaches Association, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the National Federation of State High School Associations sponsor the study to make the game safer.

By David Williamson
Note: Mueller can be reached at (919) 962-5171.
Contact: David Williamson, (919) 962-8596

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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