By Jarrett Standridge
In week two of the Oklahoma high school football season, Southwest Covenant was set to face Strother High School. Southwest Covenant player Peter Webb saw the snap go over the quarterback’s head. As the quarterback picked up the fumble, Webb caught him from behind, pulling him down on top of himself. During the tackle, the back of Webb’s head hit the ground, knocking him unconscious and was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. Webb died the following Sunday at age 16.
Two weeks later in Stratford during a game against Lexington Middle School, Riley Boatright of Lexington died from an injury.
While the cause of Boatright’s death has not been confirmed, both Webb and Boatright are tragic examples of the violent nature of football, a hot topic for discussion for many years now. With rule changes such as the implementation of targeting and illegal blindside block penalties, one would think that football is becoming less violent.
On November 21, OU tight end Grant Calcaterra announced his retirement from football. Calcaterra cited his “fair share of concussions” as the reason for his premature retirement. His decision is one that many football players have made over the course of their careers
“What it really came down to is, ‘Do I want to have a bunch of money, possibly, (from) playing football and be 50 years old, but I can’t remember how to brush my teeth?” Or, ‘Cut my losses, pride myself on having a decent career in college and not be a millionaire, but be able to enjoy my family, be able to enjoy my friends?’ So, that’s what I choose to do.” Said Calcaterra.
For many places in America, high school football is everything. Entire towns shut down on Friday nights to watch their teams battle it out on the gridiron. School legends are born underneath the stadium lights. Fans celebrate victories and agonize in defeat.
Despite this country’s love for football, the number of players has dipped in recent years. Many parents have grown weary of letting their children play and participation numbers around the country have started to reflect that.
According to Football Scoop, high school football participation nationally has dropped more than 9% (around 106,300 players) since peaking in 2008 at 1,112,303 players. This decline is in part due to the growing concern of concussions and injuries. Some schools have even dropped the sport altogether because of the decline in participation.
The National Federation of State High School Associations, however, maintains that high school football is the safest it has ever been.
“In 2016 and 2017, there were only two direct deaths each year compared to an average of 20 annually in the late 1960s and early 1970s,” a NFHS article states. “Moreover, as opposed to 50 years ago, today playing rules are in place at the high school level to manage a student who exhibits signs and symptoms of a concussion. Thanks to these guidelines and state laws in place, the incidence of high school players incurring a repeat concussion has been greatly reduced. In addition, practice restrictions and contact limits have been adopted by all member state associations,”
In addition to rule changes, concussion protocols and better equipment, coaching staffs across the country have taken matters into their own hands. Through teaching a fairly new rugby-style tackling technique first used by the Seattle Seahawks in 2014, coaches at every level of the sport, from the pros to high school, are hoping to limit injuries. Locally, Coach Scott O’Hara, head football coach at Bridge Creek High School in Blanchard, has adopted this “hawk tackling” technique with his team.
“It’s kind of almost a wrestling technique, almost a rugby technique but it eliminates the head,” O’Hara said.
O’Hara believes that the hawk tackling technique is the safest and most effective technique in football.
“This is a technique that I can go and talk to parents and say we are teaching your kids not to use their head at all,” O’Hara says. “It made me feel so much better as a coach, as a person,”.
The Seattle Seahawks and the Atlanta Falcons both used the technique during the 2015 season in which 199 concussions occurred, 76 more than in 2014, according to the Public Broadcasting Service Frontline Concussion Watch. Both the Falcons and the Seahawks saw lower numbers of concussions than the league average of six per team at four each. While there is still debate whether the technique is viable for getting ball carriers to the ground, its effectiveness in limiting helmet to helmet contact cannot be ignored.
Despite attempts to make football safer, it remains a violent game. Even with the precautions and improved technique, participation in high school football is at its lowest point since the 1999-2000 school year. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, participation in 11-player has dipped to 1,006,013 players, just over 3,000 more than that of 1999-2000. With all the research about the effects of CTE and concussions, major players retiring early from concussions and football-related deaths on the news, parents are becoming more skeptical about letting their children play football.
With national numbers down and schools dropping football altogether, high school football’s future looks challenging. As concerns about injuries grow, especially those to the head and neck, schools may not want to risk being sued.
“My head says this sport is doomed… the schools won’t want the liability,” O’Hara said.
He believes that the risk of being sued by a parent of an injured player will eventually outweigh the positives of having a football team in the eyes of many schools. This could mean that football is still played at these schools on a club level that is not directly associated with the school or that football could slowly start to disappear at the high school level.
On the other hand, college football and the NFL will likely not have to deal with declining numbers anytime soon. With their players being of legal age to make their own decisions, parents will not have as much say over whether their child plays or not. In addition, the prospect of making the NFL and being paid to play football will likely keep players enrolling in universities.
At the end of the day, football is a violent game by nature. Always has been and always will be. While the rule changes, new protocols, techniques and better equipment have significantly reduced the risk of injury, safety and well-being can not be completely ensured on the gridiron. If trends continue, more and more players will not participate in high school football, which might ultimately lead to the disappearance of the game at that level. The idea of not having “Friday Night Lights” might upset some, but it could become a reality.
“My heart says this game can’t stop… it’s all I know.” Says O’Hara, “It has got me to where I am today.”