On September 23, superintendent Maria Libby, principal Nick Ithomitis and athletic director Steve Alex held an emergency meeting about the Camden Hills Regional High School football program in Maine.
The previous Friday, the Windjammers had fallen to 0-3 and were clearly outmatched by superior competition. But the bigger worry was that four students were injured in the game — two suffered concussions and two had to go to the Emergency Room. The following Monday, only 11 members of the demoralized team showed up to practice.
So, after looking ahead at the daunting schedule that remained and assessing safety concerns, the officials decided to cancel the remainder of the football season.
“This was a thoughtful decision based on a lot of factors that converged into an unsafe situation,” Libby told ThinkProgress. “I have a responsibility to be sure that we are not sending students into harm’s way.”
It’s understandable why Libby wants to err on the side of caution. This season, six high school football players already have died due to injuries sustained during a game or practice. The most recent death occurred over the weekend, when Cam’ron Matthews, a junior at an East Texas high school, collapsed when he returned to the bench after a kickoff return. Matthews had a seizure, and the medical staff kept him breathing until a helicopter arrived from 50 miles away. Matthews remained in critical condition until he died the following night.
Last month, junior linebacker Ben Hamm from Welseyan Christian School in Oklahoma died after suffering a brain injury from a “routine tackle.” Evan Murray, a senior quarterback from Warren Hills Regional High School in New Jersey, died after a massive intra-abdominal hemorrhage due to a ruptured spleen. Kenney Bui, a 17-year-old wide receiver and defensive back at Evergreen High School in Washington, died after sustaining a head injury.
In 2014, five high school players died of causes directly related to football, and seven other players died from causes indirectly related to football, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research.
“It confirms to me that there are real safety issues. I feel like we made the right decision,” Libby said when asked about the recent deaths. “But I wasn’t necessarily afraid someone was going to die on the field, I was just generally concerned about safety and injuries on our team.”
Injury concerns aren’t restricted to high-school football. Just two weeks into this NFL season, 15 percent of the players had already sustained injuries, and in the past year, three NFL players and one NCAA player have retired early due to concerns about head trauma. A recent study conducted by the Department of Veteran Affairs and Boston University found that 87 of 91 former NFL players that were tested showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative brain disease that is believed to be caused by repetitive brain trauma.
The risk of injury begins at a young age. Football players age 9-12 average 240 high-magnitude hits between practice and games ever season, according to research by the Annals of Biomedical Engineering.
Catastrophic injuries, such as death and permanent injury, are three times more likely in high school football players than college football players, according to a 2007 study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine. This is due to a variety of factors, including older equipment and still-developing brains.
Libby suspects that the increased awareness about the danger of football contributed somewhat to the decreased participation in the Camden Hills football program, which has only been around on the varsity level since 2009. A total of 24 students from the 2014 team didn’t return this year — 12 graduated and 12 chose not to play. There were only 26 players on the Camden Hills roster at the beginning of the season, including 13 freshmen and three girls. With this in mind, the Class B school opted to move down to Class D, hoping that would help level the playing field.
But the drop down didn’t provide as much protection for players as officials had hoped, which is why they decided to forfeit the rest of the season. The decision has been met with controversy, particularly among students, players, and even the head coach Thad Chilton, none of whom were consulted in the process.
“I understand the administrators’ concerns, but I am a football coach and in football, we never give up,” Chilton said, as reported by WMTW.com. “I know that our players and our families don’t share that same concern because they’re football people.”
When Stan Grossfeld of The Boston Globe asked 16-year-old junior Mason Mahonen, the co-captain of the former football team, if he was willing to risk dying on the football field, Mahonen answered, “Yes.”
“Because I love it,” he said. “I love not only the sport but also how I can get all this energy and go out there and just hit people. It seems bad but it’s not. It’s legal. You don’t get a ticket for it.’’
Libby sympathizes with the disappointment the students and coaches are feeling, and particularly feels bad for the seniors, but remains convinced that canceling the remainder of the football season was the correct decision.
“Sometimes we have to be more conservative than a player or a parent might individually be, and we have to be able to live with people being disappointed,” she said. “Their level of tolerance for risk might be different from ours.”
The school hasn’t made any official decisions about the future of the program, but Libby said that after a meeting with about 150 parents and community members, there is a groundswell of support for Camden Hills to field a junior varsity team next year — if there are enough students interested.
“A higher number of students on the team, particularly skilled players, means some players won’t have to play as long and won’t be as tired, which will hopefully lead to fewer injuries” Libby said. “And playing J.V. teams will ensure that the competition is more evenly matched.”
For now, students at Camden Hills have several other fall sports to keep them busy — the school has three boys soccer teams, a golf team, a sailing team, a mountain-biking team, and a cross-country team.
A previous version of this post stated that Kenney Bui attended Washington State High School, when he in fact attended Evergreen High School in the state of Washington. The post has been corrected.