On Friday, in the third quarter a western New York high school football game, 16-year-old Damon Janes ran for a five-yard touchdown. A few minutes later, there was a big hit and Janes walked off the field in a daze. He collapsed unconscious on the sidelines.
The boy died on Monday.
It’s the sort of tragedy that pulls the common refrain of questions to the front–Can this be prevented? Should I let my kid play football? Are we watching the last days of football as we know it?
With each collision-related football death, the questions grow louder. Knowledge on football brain injuries is quickly advancing, and each time a young player dies, we have more information than the last time it happened.
The Buffalo News, which first broke the story, reported that Janes’ final play involved a helmet-to-helmet hit. The delayed loss on consciousness is consistent with the symptoms of brain trauma.
Deaths are relatively rare in high school football. According to the University of North Carolina’s National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, 25 high schoolers died from the sport between 2003 and 2013. The preparation for competition can be just as dangerous as the game itself–the center also found that 40 players have died from heatstroke over the last 20 years.
An on-field fatality presents a nightmare scenario, but that is not new. What’s new is the nightmare that we can’t see–the smaller subconcussive hits that accumulate to cause the long-term brain damage we are now starting to recognize in former college and professional football players.
The helmet-to-helmet hits that knock a player out are not the main problem. As the NFL has shown, a few rule changes can drastically limit a player’s vulnerability to the woooo! hits. For football fans, the culture is changing. After a violent collision, there are fewer what-day-of-the-week jokes and more concern–there is the discomfort of knowing full well that the stuff entertaining us today will likely be driving mad and killing some of these athletes in the future.
It is the plays in-between, the unavoidable helmet clinks, that cause the lion’s share of the lasting damage.
As the body of brain research has spread across the culture, though, tragedies like Damon Janes’ death now do shine a light on the plays in-between. There is no longer much of a distinction among the hits. There is just the axiom that football is dangerous, more dangerous than we could have imagine just a decade ago.
In an essay in the New York Times this week, former linebacker Scott Fujita contemplated what he should say when people ask him whether they should let their sons play football:
I developed a deep love-hate relationship with the game. I loved playing on Sundays. I loved the paychecks. I loved the guys in the locker room. But I hated what football was doing to so many people around me, and I hated what it was probably doing to me.
This ambivalence will probably define the sport for a while. We mourn the dead, pray it never happens again, then tune in for the weekend.