Almost a year ago, NBA all-star LeBron James was asked why he does not allow his young sons to play football, as he did when growing up in Akron, Ohio. LeBron said, “My kids don’t need a way out [of poverty]. They’re all right. I needed a way out when I was a kid. I tried to do whatever it took to get out. That’s my excuse.”
The exchange went viral during an NFL weekend defined by mangled bodies more than anything that could be called a game.
Running backs Reggie Bush and Le’Veon Bell are gone for the season with knee ligament injuries while receiver Steve Smith, Sr., playing in what was supposed to be his last season, had his Achilles torn, perhaps ending his career. It made one wonder: If this is what’s happening to muscles, ligaments, and tendons, what could be ripped and bruised inside a player’s skull on every hit?
Unfortunately, a national television audience was given a gut-wrenching view of that very scenario.
In a game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Dallas Cowboys, Seahawks receiver Ricardo Lockette—on a clean hit—was concussed, sustaining ligament damage in his neck, and will be out for the rest of the year. For his family, teammates, and the television audience, this diagnosis spurred waves of relief. This is because after he hit the turf, Lockette remained motionless as players from both sides held hands and prayed while the Dallas crowd was near silent. It was unnerving, and it spoke to the kind of existential fear in the pit of the stomach of every player and league-office bean counter: that someone could die directly from an on-field collision.
It’s morbid to contemplate—and it’s only happened once in an NFL game, over 40 years ago—but if that fear seems overly alarmist, then you haven’t been paying attention to what’s been happening at the high-school level over the past two months. This fall, seven high school football players have died from on-field injuries since the start of the season. The latest was Andre Smith from Bogan High School in Chicago. His official cause of death on the Cook County autopsy was “blunt force head injuries due to a football accident.”
The typical cause of death on the football field is sudden cardiac arrest, something which, in theory, could be screened for before any teenager takes the field. But in a country that for all its wealth has a crumbling public-school system, it’s hard to see how electrocardiogram machines could be available to every athletic department. In other words, you’re playing a lottery with kids’ lives.