Football at all levels faces challenges, but high school football has never been more popular despite concerns about concussions and other injuries.
Robert B. Gardner, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, believes football will be a part of high school athletic programs for years to come.
Participation by high school players and schools is at an all-time high. More than 14,000 high schools in the United States field teams with more than 1 million players. About 7,000 high school games are played each week in the fall in the United States.
Gardner believes footballs place among high school athletics in the future is secure because he believes high school football is safer than ever.
Concussion education has been a wonderful thing for high school athletics, Gardner said from his office in Indianapolis. High school sports are safer and better for our participants because of the growing awareness of concussion management.
You consider our concussion management now and our emphasis on hydration and heat concerns and you can see the game is getting safer.
In his book, Concussions and Our Kids, Dr. Robert Cantu, one of the top concussion experts in the world, quotes former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, I think that were at a crossroads, as it relates to the grassroots of our sport, because if I had a 10-year-old boy, I dont know that Id be real inclined to encourage him to go play football, in light of what we are learning from head injury.
Gardner believes the high school game is much safer than it was when Aikman was a star football and baseball player in Henryetta, Okla. High school football shouldnt be equated with the NFL, where players have repeated exposure to head trauma over years.
The National Federations concussion awareness course (free at www.nfhslearn.com) has been taken by more than 1 million people. The program was developed by the Federation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Gardners belief that football is safer is supported by statistics. Between 1966 and 1972, high school football had 134 deaths caused by injuries sustained while playing football.
From among more than 1 million high school players in 2012, there were no direct fatalities and nine indirect fatalities, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The indirect fatalities, which are not related to performing football skills, were caused by heat stroke (one), heart issues (four), asthma (two), lightning (one) and unknown (one).
Concussion awareness has led many states, including North Carolina, to enact legislation establishing protocols for handling concussions.
North Carolinas Gfeller-Waller Concussion Awareness Act requires coaches, parents and guardians to be instructed about concussions, and helps prevent players who exhibit concussion symptoms from participating until cleared by a medical professional and requires schools to develop emergency procedures.
The game is safer, too, because the N.C. High School Athletic Association, and most state associations, have mandated conditioning periods at the start of the season before competition begins. Practices are regulated by heat and hydration requirements.
The biggest missing piece in North Carolina is requiring schools to have nationally certified athletic trainers. The NCHSAA has considered requiring the trainers, but didnt want to mandate schools having the trainers unless the North Carolina legislature would fund them.
Gardner believes high school football will be safer in the future than it is now as medical experts learn more about concussions and officials continue to monitor the rules.
I see high school football being part of our program for a very long time to come, Gardner said.