Fatal consequences of American football’s inherent violence again in the dock
Three deaths in quick succession have once again put the focus on the dangers of grid-iron football
A memorial to Tom Cutinella, who died after being injured during a high-school football game, at Shoreham-Wading River High School in Shoreham, New York.
The Shoreham-Wading River Wildcats led the John Glenn Knights 17-12 with four minutes remaining in the third quarter last Wednesday evening. On second down and five, a Knights running back took possession and started to move forward. Tom Cutinella, a Wildcats guard, shifted across to try to effect a block and met an opponent coming the other way. There ensued the type of shuddering collision that is a routine feature of uber-competitive high-school grid-iron all across America.
The impact of this particular hit knocked Cutinella to the ground. He went to get up but struggled only as far as his knees. Eventually, he stood and began walking uncertainly towards the sideline. Then he collapsed. A doctor and a nurse sprinted on to the field. An ambulance arrived 10 minutes later and rushed him to Huntington Hospital where he died later that night.
Cutinella was a junior (fifth year), had just got his driver’s permit (provisional licence), and harboured ambitions of one day winning a cadet scholarship to the United States Military Academy at West Point.
At a time when the US media is in full-blown hysteria mode about the threat of Ebola, a disease yet to claim a single American life, the most astonishing thing about Cutinella’s story is he was the third high-school student to die playing grid-iron in the space of just seven days.
If three deaths from suspected brain injury in such quick succession prompted a slew of headlines such as, “We can’t allow a sport to kill our kids”, these were not isolated incidents either. In 2013, eight other teenagers died on high-school football fields. Taken in tandem with the constant dripfeed revelations about the brain damage suffered by those in the NFL (a report last week found that 76 out of 79 deceased professional players had chronic traumatic encephalopathy), these statistics explain why more and more parents are reluctant to sign their kids up to the game.
“I’m a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football,” said President Barack Obama, father of two girls. “And I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence.”
Obama made that comment nearly two years ago, a detail that illustrates how Americans have been wrestling with the issue of their version of football’s inherent dangers long before these most recent tragedies. Since 2008, the number of kids between six and 18 playing the sport has dropped, depending on which survey you believe, by between six and 10 per cent. Already, moves are afoot in some parts of the country to change the rules for younger age groups, removing the physical hitting aspect, instead teaching them the basic skills while playing flag-football, grid-iron’s own version of touch rugby.
Hallmark of violence
“If high school kids want to play football and their parents want them to play football, then they must be reminded of the risks,” wrote Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights, the seminal book on the high-school game, in Time magazine last month.
“Over and over and over. Just as a smoker is every time he buys a pack of cigarettes with the warning label about lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema and complications of pregnancy. Let’s be honest for once in our lives without obstructionism by lobbyist lawyers for the massive football machine. WARNING: MEDICAL STUDIES HAVE DETERMINED THAT FOOTBALL CAN RESULT IN EARLY ALZHEIMER’S, DEPRESSION AND DANGEROUS MOOD SWINGS FAR BEYOND THOSE OF THE GENERAL POPULATION.”
Despite being the man whose work spawned a television drama that defined the teenage experience of the sport, the chances of Bissinger having his wish granted and a sign of that ilk getting posted in every lockerroom are minimal. It’s much more likely there will be increased talk about improved helmet safety, better education regarding concussion protocols, and an attempt to teach safer methods of blocking and tackling. In other words, not much will change any time soon.
On the short journey from his house to the bus stop last Wednesday morning, Tom Cutinella realised he’d forgotten to pack his No 54 shirt for the game that evening. As he raced back home, his father Frank was standing in the driveway waiting, the jersey in his hand, getting ready to throw. Cutinella caught it, said, “I love you Dad!” and headed back up the street. A little further on, he stopped, turned around and shouted back, “Tell Mom I love her.”
He was 16.