What's Really Killing Overheated High School Football Players

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An ESPN columnist wrongly blames "The Cult of Football" for the recent deaths of four teenagers

hampton_footballheat_post.jpg

Reuters


You messed up, Jeff MacGregor.

You may be one of the nation's best sportswriters, but your column yesterday about heat-related deaths in high school football was a shameful exercise in sloppy thinking. Clearly, like anyone with a conscience, you want these horrible, very avoidable deaths to stop. Obviously, you wrote the piece with the best of intentions. That doesn't excuse, however, your ridiculous assertion that these young players are dying because of "vanity and ambition" in football. At best, the idea is pure hyperbole, distracting attention from the much more likely, and more tangible, culprits. At worst, the column indirectly accuses six, already-grieving men of gross negligence.

After all, Mr. MacGregor, it wasn't "vanity and ambition" in charge of those blistering practice fields in Georgia and South Carolina. "The cult of football" wasn't the one ordering young players to run wind sprints and cone-drills in triple-digit heat. The head coaches did that. They were there, giving orders. Your column carelessly insinuates that the coaches whose players have died are at fault for those deaths. The idea, apparently, is that these six men, with a blood lust for victory, goaded by equally crazy administrators, boosters and parents, were living out their twisted, Bear Bryant/Drill Sargent power fantasies on the practice field, and ended up working their own players to death. That's a pretty serious thing, even to imply. A shred of evidence in support would have been nice.

An article on the Korey Stringer Institute earlier this week in USA Today sheds a more rational light on the subject. According to research cited in the story, 123 high school football players died from heat-related illnesses between 1960 and 2009. From 1980 to 1994, the annual rate of death was level at around one per year. Over the last 15 years, however, that rate has nearly tripled, to an average of 2.8 deaths per year.

Why?

If McGregor is to be believed, "the cult of football" is at fault. The Stringer Institute, though, suggests other factors are at work. Like air-conditioning, for instance. Today's young athletes almost exclusively workout indoors, using weight-rooms and personal gyms. The massive heat and humidity of August are a huge, dangerous shock to the system, and Stringer offers a set of guidelines to help athletes acclimatize gradually.

But there's a much bigger problem. Literally. Of the players who died between 1980 and 2009, over 85 percent were linemen, valued for bulk, and nearly 95 percent would be considered overweight or clinically obese.

So, sure. Go ahead and ban practices when it's over 90 degrees. Fine. Yes, teams need to keep tubs of ice-water and an athletic trainer on hand. That will save many a preventable death in an emergency. But there's another good way to address the deeper problem, at least if you believe that a pound of cure is worth an ounce of prevention. School districts could make a rule that kids who want to play football have to take a body-mass index test on the first day of practice, and anyone who tests clinically overweight or obese can't suit up. That way, maybe kids would be showing up in better shape to begin with. Then we wouldn't need to save so many with ice-water bathtubs.

Of course, that rule would only work by appealing to a young player's vanity and ambition around the cult of football. Still, it might be worth giving a shot.

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Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Playboy, Gawker, Maxim, and many more publications.

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