How Brain Injuries are Claiming Teenage Lives on the Football Field

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PHOENIX, N.Y. — Football coaches and school administrators at John C. Birdlebough High School congregated in a small room off the library Monday, huddling around a computer for a most painful and unusual review of game video. They examined every play that one student was involved in, assuming the role of medical examiners.They were trying to discern which collision of the hundreds in a football game at Homer High School on Friday night might have caused Ridge Barden, a 16-year-old defensive tackle, to fall to the turf in the third quarter and die within a few hours. The coroner attributed Barden’s death to a subdural hematoma, or a brain bleed.

“There’s nothing here; there’s still nothing there; there’s nothing there; there’s nothing there — and now he’s laying on his stomach,” Jeff Charles, the head coach, said while watching the sequence frame by frame.

As those who play and coach football learn new ways to improve safety — through training, medical response and equipment — sometimes they are left to contemplate this: brains remain vulnerable, and even the most ordinary collisions on the field can kill.

Teenagers are especially susceptible to having multiple hits to the head result in brain bleeds and massive swelling, largely because the brain tissue has not yet fully developed. According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, Barden was the 13th high school player to die from a brain injury sustained on a football field since 2005 and the third this year. Including college and youth football players, there have been 18 fatalities since 2005.

With heightened attention focused on brain injuries in football in recent years, Barden’s death delivered an unwelcome reminder that even the best-known practices sometimes fall short. As it happened, the Senate Commerce Committee, the latest group in Washington to explore the topic, held a hearing Wednesday to discuss concussions in sports and the controversial marketing of...
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