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Study highlights risk for youth football players

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PARK CITY — A new study of sudden deaths of young people involved in competitive sports — particularly football — re-emphasizes the need for safety measures like those put in place this year by the Utah Legislature.

Football players account for nearly 57 percent of trauma-related sports deaths among people age 21 and younger over the past 30 years, according to findings published Monday in the medical journal Pediatrics.

Deaths for young athletes over 30 years
  • Football - 138 deaths
  • Track and field - 27 deaths (mostly pole vaulters landing outside padded area)
  • Baseball - 16 deaths (from batted balls)
  • Boxing - 12 deaths

Researchers with the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation in Minneapolis analyzed data from 1980-2009 to identify situations in which young athletes are at the greatest risk.

Of the 1,827 deaths of young athletes, 261 (or 14 percent) of those were caused by trauma-related injuries, usually involving the head or neck, according to the study. Most of those deaths, 148, involved football players — including 17 high school athletes who had suffered concussions shortly before the fatal head trauma.

Earlier this year, Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, sponsored a bill in the state Legislature requiring amateur sports organizations to adopt and enforce polices regarding concussions and head injuries.

HB204, which easily passed in both the House and the Senate, mandates that athletes under 18 be removed from sporting events when it is suspected they have sustained a head injury or concussion. Clearance from a medical professional with training on concussion management is required for that young athlete to resume play.


The law, which went into effect in May, applies to private and public schools, club sports, camps and recreation leagues.

At the time, Utah High School Activities Association officials called the legislation "forward thinking." The Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation study supports that assessment.

"We had athletic trainers from the state of Utah come to us and say, 'Hey, guys. This is a problem,'" Ray said Monday. "Really, it was the forward thinking of these trainers (who advanced the legislation)."

Legislators began looking into the issue in March of 2010, he said, but took time to study the issue before moving legislation forward.

For many years, concussions were overlooked and not taken seriously enough, Ray said. It was just part of the game.

"We've realized, as medical technologies have improved, that these are causing long-term illnesses and injuries," he said. "A concussion is a traumatic brain injury. It's not just a bump on the head. ... Those add up over time and cause cognitive disabilities."

Rep. Paul Ray will be talking about the so-called Protection of Athletes with Head Injuries Act at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Museum Theater at Utah Olympic Park, 3419 Olympic Parkway. The presentation will include education on concussions from medical professionals and information about how HB204 relates to specific organizations.

Of the 138 young football players who died as a result of head or neck injuries, 17 (or 12 percent) had a reported concussion within the previous four weeks and displayed persistent symptoms of recurring headache, dizziness, disorientation, memory loss, visual disturbances or vomiting, according to the study.

"Most of the fatal events reported here are potentially preventable," the study states.

Track and field accounted for a little more than 10 percent of trauma-related deaths among young athletes, with most of those participating in the pole vault.

Baseball players made up nearly 7 percent of the fatalities, another 5 percent of the deaths were among boxers and 4 percent among soccer players. Horseback riding and skiing each accounted for 3 percent of the trauma-related deaths.

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