Death of Georgia teen raises question: Is football too dangerous?

Credit: Pike County High School

Credit: Pike County High School

The death of Pike County High School football player Dylan Thomas from injuries related to a game Friday underscores the risks that are leading some schools to back away from the popular sport.

Airlifted Friday night to Grady Hospital, Dylan, a 17-year-old junior, died Sunday.

Another Georgia family is also keeping vigil today after their son, a sophomore at Tennessee State University, was injured in a game Saturday. A 2016 graduate of Westlake High School in south Fulton, TSU middle linebacker Christion Abercrombie remains in critical condition from a head injury sustained in a contest against Vanderbilt in Nashville.

Nationwide, more high schools are dimming the Friday night lights due to dwindling student interest and growing parent concerns. Two North Carolina high schools, Cedar Ridge High School in Hillsborough and Chapel Hill High School, did not field teams this year.

In August, a former football powerhouse in Loudoun County, Va., eliminated its varsity football team. Fewer students were trying out for the Park View High School team, in part because of the growing popularity of soccer and parent fears about safety. The school still has a junior varsity team.

Park View wasn’t alone. Two other Virginia high schools canceled their varsity seasons after failing to draw enough players.

The Annual Survey of Football Injury Research tracks football fatalities, categorizing them as direct, which means the deaths resulted from participation in the fundamental skills of football, and indirect, which means they were caused by heat stroke or cardiac arrest.

In 2017, there were four direct fatalities: two in college and two in high school. However, in 2017, there were also nine indirect fatalities, seven in high school and two in college. Of the seven high school deaths, four were cardiac, two were due to heat stroke, and one to a hemorrhage. The two college deaths were cardiac and heat stroke.

Data from the National Federation of State High School Associations revealed a 2 percent drop in participation in 2016-2017, which adds up to 20,000 fewer players on rosters than the prior season.

But football still dominates in Georgia. According to participation surveys from the federation, 13,021 high school students in Georgia played basketball in 2017-2018, 12,493 played baseball, 11,910 played soccer, 8,264 ran cross country and 4,142 played lacrosse. But 33,027 Georgia teens played football.

A month ago, I wrote about the risks inherent in the game after members of the Grayson High School football team walked out over strenuous workouts. I cited the research revealing the prevalence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, a degenerative brain disease, in athletes playing sports that involve repetitive hits to the head.

A 2017 study of 202 deceased NFL players found 99 percent had CTE. Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the study found:

The severity of CTE pathology was distributed across the highest level of play, with all former high school players having mild pathology and the majority of former college, semiprofessional, and professional players having severe pathology. Behavior, mood, and cognitive symptoms were common among those with mild and severe CTE pathology and signs of dementia were common among those with severe CTE pathology.

A few years ago, an AJC column about whether high schools should field football teams would have generated complaints of coddled athletes and helicopter parents, but there’s been change in attitude.

Yes, there are still football fanatics who declare, as one did after the Grayson High story, “Football is not for the weak. Sports are not for the weak.”

But there are more comments like this:

My husband graduated from UGA. He would have named one son Herschel and the other Walker had I let him. All of that said, we will not sign our boys up for football and, if they ask to play it will not happen until they are at least 13 or 14. We would like to say absolutely not if they ask, but we have decided if they ask we will consider. Protecting a kid's brain doesn't make them "sissy."