Nothing says autumn is approaching quite like the annual concern for the safety of young people engaging in what has become the national pastime.

Last month, California lawmakers passed a bill limiting full-contact football practices for middle- and high-school players to two 90-minute workouts per week.

Not long after, the Utah High School Activities Association implemented a new rule requiring all athletes to have yearly physical exams, rather than only one during their high school careers. Coaches are to take special care to avoid heat-related stress among players, and they must be first aid- and CPR-certified.

Nothing says autumn is approaching quite like the annual concern for the safety of young people engaging in what has become the national pastime. With some sources estimating the number of annual concussions attributable to football at 140,000 (although, no one can be sure because the injury isn’t always diagnosed or reported), this is not a minor public health concern. Neither are the many other injuries tied to the sport.

And yet, kids keep lining up to play.

The trick is to separate facts from feel-good political acts. In this case, score one for Utah, at least for not imposing meaningless rules.

In California (and several other states with similar laws), a bunch of politicians with no special medical or athletic qualifications are imposing an arbitrary rule. Utah is probably being a bit more realistic.

Bart Thompson, assistant director of the Utah High School Activities Association, told me the extra physical exams have little to do with concussions. They are primarily to guard against heart problems — sudden cardiac arrest due to undiagnosed heart conditions.

This doesn’t mean, he said, that Utah officials are unconcerned with concussions. The rules already require coaches to be aware of the symptoms. It just means officials don’t want to impose rules that are meaningless.

Thompson said most Utah high schools don’t do much tackling at all during the week, once the season starts. To limit teams to two 90-minute full-contact workouts is to prohibit something that isn’t happening.

Experts say a lot of brain injuries occur during practice, but no one seems to know where to draw the line between the type of workout needed to teach safe tackling and excessive hitting.

Concussions result from sudden accelerations. The brain, like Jell-O, gets sloshed against the skull. Thompson said it can happen even when a player doesn’t get hit directly in the head.

Modern helmets “are designed to prevent a skull fracture, and they do a tremendous job of that.” They don’t prevent concussions, however, any more than headgear protects boxers from being knocked out.

All of which means it’s not so easy to limit head injuries in a sport where hitting and knocking other players down is fundamental.

A lot of this discussion echoes the ghosts of 109 years ago, a time when the sport’s brutality threatened its very existence; ghosts of people such as Teddy Roosevelt, or Professor Shaller Matthews, dean of the divinity school at the University of Chicago.

He was quoted in 1905 by the Chicago Tribune as calling football “…a boy killing, man mutilating, money making, education prostituting, gladiatorial ‘sport.’”

I don’t think many people would echo that today. But consider that, one year later, newspapers hailed the fact that “only” 11 players died during the 1906 season, with only 103 seriously injured.

15 comments on this story

Nearly 40 years ago, I played my senior season of high school football, ending grueling practices under the relentless sun in Phoenix. Our coach called us names for complaining about heat or thirst. Water was for wimps. If you got your “bell rung,” you were supposed to “shake it off” and get back in the huddle.

Despite all this, we eagerly showed up in August to make the team, just as young men showed up in 1905, knowing they might die for the sport. The game isn’t going away. Its collisions are as impossible to extract as it would be to remove eggs from a baked cake.

Coaches today know how to recognize symptoms. Kids aren’t deliberately dehydrated. The culture is changing. The trend is good.

But the reality is there is no way to make a full-contact sport completely safe.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at For more content, visit his web site,