Blog Post about safety of high school football athletes

Tips to Prioritize Student Athlete Safety

Jan 09, 2023


Injuries are a common occurrence in sports, especially in the NFL where players can be seriously injured in front of a large audience. This was the case for Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin, who collapsed on the field during a Monday Night Football game against the Cincinnati Bengals on January 2, 2023. It was immediately clear that this was a serious and potentially life-threatening situation. Athletic trainers and paramedics worked feverishly to stabilize Hamlin on the field before transporting him to the hospital. Fortunately, at the time of this recording, Hamlin is making a miraculous recovery.  This particular incident has brought to the forefront the question of safety for football players and athletes in general from the professional level all the way down to K12.  

It’s time to have some “real talk” about how important it is for schools to prioritize the safety of their athletes and have a comprehensive support plan in place to prevent and address any injuries that may occur.  Learn how to protect our student-athletes with tips to help you advocate and or review, depending on your current role in education, current practices in your district.  

Let's get started!

High school sports, and football in particular, can be an extremely rewarding experience for student-athletes. It can teach them discipline, teamwork, and physical fitness, and can also provide opportunities for scholarships and even professional careers. However, it is important for high schools to prioritize the safety of their athletes and have a comprehensive support plan in place to prevent and address any injuries that may occur.  

When we think of sports injuries particularly in football, concussion protocols usually are the topic of conversation; however, Damar Hamlin’s collapse showcased another risk student-athletes may navigate and it can affect not just football players, but all student-athletes across all sports.  Cardiac arrest is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition that can occur in high school and college football athletes. It occurs when the heart stops beating, resulting in a lack of blood flow to the body. Cardiac arrest can be caused by a variety of factors, including underlying heart conditions, dehydration, and overexertion.

The impact of cardiac arrest in high school and college football athletes can be devastating. It can lead to serious injury or death, and can also have a significant emotional impact on the athlete's teammates, coaches, and families. In addition, cardiac arrest can have long-term consequences for the athlete, including the potential for permanent disability or the need for ongoing medical treatment.

As we think about how best to protect our student-athletes, let's focus on three aspects that as EduGladiators, we should review and or implement if not already in place to keep our kids safe.


Rethink Athletic Physicals

Practically all schools require student-athletes to turn in a physical in order to participate in a sport.  These physicals should not simply be a checkbox requirement, but rather a thorough examination by a healthcare professional to ensure that the athlete is physically fit to participate in their sport. This can include assessing the athlete's medical history, performing a physical examination, and possibly even ordering diagnostic tests to check for underlying conditions that could increase the risk of injury.

To help prevent cardiac arrest in student-athletes, it is important for schools and local healthcare professionals to upgrade their process for physicals. Asking athletes if they have a family history of heart conditions is simply not enough.  Screening athletes for underlying heart conditions must become the norm as well as ensuring student-athlete access to proper hydration and nutrition, and implementing appropriate conditioning and training programs. It is also important to have trained healthcare professionals on hand at practices and games to quickly identify and respond to any potential cardiac events.


Athletic Trainers at Every Game & Practice

According to a recent USA Today article, one in three high schools is the U.S. do not have a high school trainer.  Athletic trainers are an essential part of a comprehensive support plan for high school athletes. They are trained healthcare professionals who specialize in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of athletic injuries. Athletic trainers should be present at practices and games to assess injuries, provide first aid, and make recommendations for further treatment. They can also provide education on injury prevention and proper conditioning to help athletes stay healthy.  

If your school or district does not have adequate budget for an athletic trainer at every game and practice, then consider developing partnerships with local colleges or healthcare professionals to provide this critical support.  Coaches are not health professionals.  We must be committed to providing the BEST care for our students athletes.  

Established Trauma Response Protocols

One way to prioritize the safety of student-athletes is to have an established trauma response protocol in place. This protocol should outline the steps that should be taken in the event of a serious injury, such as a concussion or broken bone. This can include providing immediate medical attention, contacting the athlete's parents or guardians, and properly documenting the injury.  

Another aspect of a district’s trauma response protocol should also include mental health support for the teammates and spectators who might witness a traumatic sporting event.  Self-care and community connection are imperative after witnessing a traumatic sporting event.  The American Psychological Association released coping strategies after Damar Hamlin’s collapse on the field. The link to full strategies may be found in the show notes, but the guidance given can and should be integrated into schools’ trauma response protocol. Here’s a summary of the strategies for each stakeholder:

  • For Teammates:  It is perfectly normal for teammates who witness a traumatic event on the field to be worried, anxious, or fearful.  School counselors and other mental health professionals should be available to help teammates own their feelings and seek comfort through therapy, journaling, or meditation.
  • For Parents of Youth Athletes: The number one question many youth athletes may ask after witnessing a traumatic sporting event is, “Could this happen to me?”  Parents must encourage and allow their kids to talk about their feelings and parents should do more listening than speaking. The next step parents should take is to help their kids strategize ways to feel safe on the field.  It is helpful for parents to seek support from mental health professionals to help their child feel safe.  
  • For Spectators: It is important for fans to express their feelings to family, friends, or therapists if appropriate.  According to the National Center for PTSD, repeatedly watching media coverage including social media posts of traumatic events can exacerbate a person's stress reactions. Simply avoid repeatedly viewing the event on social media.  Positive community connection is a crucial next step and it is appropriate for spectators to demonstrate their humanity by contributing to charitable organizations.  For instance, Damar Hamlin was in the process of raising $2500 for a daycare in his hometown to provide Christmas gifts to the kids there. Within a week, fans, NFL players and businesses have contributed to his fundraiser and at the time of this recording, raised over $8 million dollars.  Positive action has proven very effective in helping build community connection after a shared traumatic event. 


Overall, it is important for schools to prioritize the safety of their athletes with a comprehensive support plan in place that includes these elements discussed in this episode. By taking these steps, schools can help to prevent and address injuries and provide a safe and enjoyable experience for their student-athletes.



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