On Wednesday night, 16-year-old Tom Cutinella died hours after a collision in a high school football game in Long Island. Cutinella played guard for Shoreham-Wading River High School. He had suffered a head injury in the third quarter after “a big hit,” as one teammate described it to Newsday, and left the field in an ambulance.
Cutinella was the third high school football player in less than a week to die following a game. On Friday, 17-year-old Demario Harris Jr. collapsed after a tackle in Alabama. On Sunday, 17-year-old Isaiah Langston passed out during pre-game warm-ups in North Carolina and died the following day. Local media outlets reported that he had a blood clot in his brain, though there is no word on whether the blood clot was related to any football-related brain trauma.
Not long ago, tragedies like these pulled together paradoxical truths. On one side, football is a very violent sport, one in which violence is rewarded and embedded in every moment of the game. On the other side are the statistics that always seems to pop up in stories about football-related deaths: football has a lower fatality rate than lacrosse, gymnastics, hockey, mountain climbing, and other sports.
For a fan, this latter truth could easily erase any lingering guilt or moral quandary generated by the first truth. More so when considering that football’s fatality rate has declined over the decades.
In 1966, football directly (as opposed to indirectly; for instance, heat stroke during conditioning drills) caused 2.6 deaths per 100,000 participants, according to a 2013 University of North Carolina study. By 1976, that number had dipped to 1.0, then .84 in 1986, .33 in 1996, and .07 in 2006.
Improvements in helmet technology, medical treatment, concussion awareness have made the sport safer than it has ever been. And so, for a football supporter, a death is a tragedy but an outlier, a sad and singular incident.
But things are different now. Football resides within a new context these days. A death is not an anomaly but another indictment on a spectrum presenting the ways football can damage the brain.
The NFL recently admitted that one-third of its former players will suffer from long-term brain damage. Doctors have found sings of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a disease similar to dementia, in the brains of high school and college football players. Middle-age former football stars like Brett Favre and Tony Dorsett have described their struggles with memory loss and depression.
There used to be an air of resignation around football’s dangers. It was all just part of the game, and with the thrills came the collateral damage. Society and the game are changing. The NFL implemented several rule changes to restrict the most brutal hits. Players at every level get pulled after a concussion. Michigan coach Brady Hoke caught much heat this week for leaving in his quarterback even after he got up wobbly and nearly unable to walk after taking a hit. Yet the violence remains inevitable, and because of this football’s indefinite standing as American’s most popular sport does not seem so inevitable.
On Wednesday evening, Shoreham-Wading River High School and its opponent, John Glenn High School, called off the rest of the game after Cutinella left the field and headed for the hospital. As Glenn’s coach told Newsday, “His health and safety is more important than any high school football game.”