As concerns grow, training and regulation improve safety for high school football players

October 31, 2018 — by Mathew Luo

During the Homecoming game at Levi’s Stadium on Sept. 21, junior Will Seifert,  who plays defensive tackle and gunner for the team, suffered a helmet-to-helmet collision and collapsed on the field. Paramedics rushed in. Seifert eventually woke on a stretcher in the field, having no recollection of which play it was or even how he received the blow.

While Seifert seemed to suffer no lasting complications from the collision and returned to the field later in the year, his concussion reflects a worrying fact about injuries in contact sports, football especially: Athletes are being injured despite their protective gear and the numerous safety regulations introduced in the past couple decades.

“During games, high schoolers are hitting each other at 110, 120 percent,” Seifert said. “There’s going to be complications and injury no matter what protection football players wear.”

Football players suffer a wide array of injuries, so there is no most common injury football players face, head coach Tim Lugo said. Injuries ranging from muscular sprains to ligament tears are common for any football player. In exceedingly rare cases, some high school football players even die each year from football related injuries. About four deaths annually in the U.S. occur from direct trauma while playing football, according to The American Journal of Sports Medicine.

These injuries and deaths have led some to protest the playing of football and even advocate the banning of the sport entirely, especially at the high school level and earlier.

For his part, Lugo called these criticisms and calls for banning the sport overblown.

“Football, the NFL, is the most watched sport in America,” Lugo said. “So the public sees football injuries and attack the sport, even though it doesn’t have the highest injury rate.”

Numerous regulations and training changes have been instituted to increase the safety for players in recent years. Among these, the most influential were a transition to a more rugby-like tackling style by tucking the head away while tackling and the introduction of rules against helmet to helmet contact.

These new regulations and training methods have slowly trickled into high school play. In high schools nationwide, football teams are limited by regulation to a certain number of tackling hours per week. At Saratoga High, coaches teach the safer style of tackling and have instituted year-round conditioning to strengthen the neck and back.

Despite these advances, Seifert thinks still greater improvements can be made and even has one radical suggestion: playing the sport without helmets.

“In rugby, players don’t tackle into each other at 110 percent,” he said. “If football players didn’t think that they had safety with their gear, they would be less reckless.”
More pertinent to high school, Lugo has advocated for other schools to hire on-campus coaches such as Spanish teacher Bret Yeilding the way Saratoga does. On-campus coaches, he said, are able to teach the game in the right way.

In the end, Lugo is optimistic about the safer direction football is going in. Girls’ soccer has recently overtaken football as the sport with the highest injury rate nationally, Lugo said, and football continues to improve its safety through regulation and better training.

“What people don’t know is that football is the safest it’s been in decades, maybe ever,” Lugo said.