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The death last weekend of a Texas high school football player has prompted another wave of debate about the game's safety — part of a long period of soul-searching for America's most popular sport.
Most of the discussion focuses on head injuries, one of the leading causes of football-related fatalities. But the case of 16-year-old Cam'ron Matthews, who died of a brain aneurysm, shows that football deaths come in a variety of circumstances, and usually are not directly related to what happened on the field.
Of the other five deaths so far this year, three were the result of head or neck injuries, one was caused by a ruptured spleen and one is believed to be related to a congenital heart defect.
And as tragic as these deaths are, they remain rare. In the past decade, an average of nine football players have died each season. About a third of the 88 deaths from 2005 to 2014 were the result of injuries sustained while playing — tackling, blocking, knocking helmets — according to data collected by the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research. The rest were caused by the complications from existing conditions, like heart ailments, or problems related to over-exertion, like heat stroke.
Put another way, the 2014 rate of deaths related directly to on-field action was a miniscule fraction of one percent (.00045, to be precise) for each 100,000 high school football players. That rate bobs up and down every year, but consistently remains less than half what it was 40 years ago.
Still, among all sports, football is the most risky. And more than 1 million high school students participate.
Dawn Comstock, who researches sports injuries at the Colorado School of Public Health, said football has the highest rate of injuries and concussions — not just deaths — of all major high school sports. Among boys, contact sports such as hockey and lacrosse follow football. Among girls, soccer and cheerleading rank high, Comstock said.
Although the injury rate remains relatively low, the national debate about concussions and other football-related injuries has sparked efforts to make youth sports safer, Comstock said.
But as each death makes national headlines, the issue risks sparking irrational fears among parents — some of whom may want to pull their kids out of sports altogether.
That would be a mistake, Comstock said.
"The long-term negative health consequences of an inactive lifestyle — the increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, obesity — are much more likely in the big picture, and much more serious, compared to the incredibly small risk of any individual young athlete having a serious sports-related injury," she said.