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High School Football is Too Dangerous

Some 25 years ago, NBC-TV’s popular “Hill Street Blues” series featured a character, Sgt. Phil Esterhaus, warning the street cops, “Hey, let's be careful out there.”

High School football coaches might use that advice.

High schoolers started authorized football practice in August, just 10 days after Gov. Quinn signed into law a measure requiring schools to carry catastrophic insurance for student athletes.

The bill was inspired by the case of Rasul “Rocky” Clark, an Eisenhower High School running back who was paralyzed in a 2000 tackle and died last year.

Mostly overlooked in the coverage of the insurance law was the advice of a longtime team doctor for high school, college and NFL teams: Don’t play football.

Actually, Dr. Pietro Tonino – a respected sports medicine specialist and professor in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery and Rehabilitation at Loyola University – offered his unsolicited advice to parents of teens thinking of gridiron glory.

He said, “I don’t believe it is worth the risk. When you have two human beings collide at a high rate of speed – especially if one of them is much bigger than the other – then significant injuries are quite possible. So I advise parents to try to steer their children to alternative sports. We are just beginning to understand the long-term consequences of injuries sustained at young ages.”

Indeed, a study published in the journal Pediatrics found that injury rates were similar in football and baseball. But while only 3 percent of baseball injuries were considered serious (fractures, dislocations, concussions), 14 percent of football injuries were considered serious.

The most common football injuries are knee injuries. Other common injuries are ankle sprains, shoulder injuries and overuse injuries that cause back pain and tendonitis. But Tonino says concussions are his biggest concern. He notes that a position statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine says teens’ developing brains differ physiologically from adult brains, so young athletes are more susceptible to concussions accompanied by a catastrophic injury and may need a longer recovery.

Helmets can prevent injuries such as cuts and fractures, but helmets haven’t been shown to reduce the incidence and severity of concussions. This is particularly true if improper tackling techniques are used.

Tonino said, “Lowering the head and leading with the head can cause serious head and neck injuries, regardless of the quality of the helmet.”

In addition to high risks of serious injuries, football generally has inadequate medical supervision during practices and games, Tonino said. For example, he surveyed football programs in Chicago public high schools and found that only 10.6 percent had a physician on the sideline during games; 8.5 percent had an athletic trainer present; and 89.4 percent had a paramedic available. During practice, no school had a physician or paramedic present, and only one school had an athletic trainer available.

Tonino didn’t let his own two sons play football, but he understands that many other parents will disagree with his advice.

If they do, he suggests parents carefully observe the football program to ensure that summer training sessions occur in early morning or early evening to reduce the risk of heat injury; that there’s adequate water and ice; and that a physician or athletic trainer is on the sidelines at games.

Also, get to know the coach, he suggests. Often, they’re the only ones who provide medical supervision. Finally, Tonino advises parents: Keep an eye out for concussions. Does your child suffer from headaches or dizziness, or have difficulty concentrating?

Tonino and other physicians aren’t advocating sheltering children in some kind of bubble. But acknowledging the relative risks and rewards of extracurricular activity doesn’t seem ridiculous.

“Hey, let's be careful out there.”

Bill Knight’s newspaper columns are archived at

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.