High School Deaths Directly Due to Football Injuries are at Highest Three-Year Level Since Late 80's

By Jason Lisk

Another high school player, Luke Schemm of Wallace County, Kansas, collapsed and died after getting tackled this weekend, and his father referred to it as a traumatic brain injury. Schemm is the eighth high school player to die since September.

Those numbers you see referenced don’t include other deaths before September but occurring this calendar year, which is the proper point of comparison when looking back at historic rates. So far, I’ve located three others from the preseason due to either heat stroke (Tekarian Maclin; Collin Kelly) or cardiac events (Toney Graham). (if you are aware of others, please feel free to forward).

When you see reference to football injuries and deaths, it’s important to separate them out. For example, this piece from the NY Daily News a couple of years ago notes that 12 high school football players on average die each year, with the majority being from cardiac and heat-related causes.

This Annual Survey of Football Injury Research from March 2015 is the most comprehensive and detailed I have seen, and it separates out direct football injuries (brain injuries, broken neck, etc) from indirect causes like cardiac events and heat-related deaths. While the total number of deaths may not be unusual for past recent years, the number of direct deaths is at a higher than normal level.

Of the 8 high school football deaths this fall, only one of them is clearly indirectly football-related as opposed to directly caused by a football hit. Rod Williams’ death was attributed to cardiac issues. Cam’ron Matthews collapsed upon returning to the bench and the cause of death is listed as an aneurysm. The other causes include a broken neck (Tyrell Cameron), internal injuries including a lacerated spleen (Evan Murray) and brain/head injuries (Ben Hamm, Kenney BuiAndre Smith, and now Luke Schemm).

According to that Annual Survey, there were 8 direct football-related deaths in 2013 and 5 in 2014, so depending on whether you classify Matthews as a direct football-related death, that has been 19 or 20 in the last three years. From 2002 to 2012, there were 122 deaths, but only 28 (2.5 per year) were directly caused by a football injury. This season is not over yet, and there have already been more deaths in the last three calendar years that are directly football-related than any three-year period since 1986-1988 (23 total direct football-related deaths).

Part of what you are witnessing is that information gets shared and travels compared to past decades. Communities that may have had no concept of the same tragedy occurring are now bound together by common knowledge. But even with that, the number of direct deaths is higher the last few years.

This uptick happens to coincide with the launch of the USA Football Heads Up Initiative in August of 2012 in response to concern about the safety of the game. Helmet companies are touting safer helmets to sell to kids and parents at the youth level. This is certainly not to suggest that those initiatives have any correlation. However, it is discouraging that at a time when these programs are being touted, we are seeing deaths, as rare of events as they are, increasing relative to the number of high school participants compared to previous years. Is the educational information about brain injuries and monitoring not getting to the grass roots level in communities around the country? Or are these just those “risk of the game” injuries that cannot be prevented, as a material part of the game, no matter what people are told?

The indirectly related deaths are actually down. There were 31 heat stroke related deaths of football players from 2002 to 2012, and only 2 total the previous two years (and 2 that I found referenced this summer). Those are preventable with proper monitoring and awareness from coaches and trainers. But it is discouraging that, as those are seeing slight declines, deaths resulting directly from playing the sport are spiking this year.