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How Many More High School Football Players Have to Die?

Student athletes pause at a makeshift memorial on the football field at Shoreham Wading Hill High School. 16-year-old varsity football player Tom Cutinella died Wednesday after a fatal football collision.
Photograph by AP

I’m from Texas. I understand football and its followers. "Friday Night Lights" was popular for a reason. I know that in some communities — in Texas and throughout this country — high school football is more than a game. It’s a potent mixture of tradition, religion, entertainment and quite often, a social axis around which a community revolves.

But just this week, three high school football players died either from injuries sustained during a collision on the field or collapsed during warm-up. While three deaths — in New York, Alabama, and North Carolina — may not equal an epidemic, it surely signals a critical point where we must ask ourselves the hard questions about the value of high school football and whether it’s worth the risks to the players.

RELATED: Our Son Didn't Have to Die on the Football Field

Certainly, three deaths in four days is not something to chalk up to a freak accident. But that’s exactly what the Shoreham-Wading River superintendent Steve Cohen said about the death of player, Tom Cutinella. Calling it a “freak accident,” Cohen said it “was the result of a typical football play.”

Really? Typical football play ends in a player collapsing, being rushed to the ER and dying hours later? This line of thinking veers too close to that exposed in the NFL in the wake of the recent Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson scandals: Beating up your spouse or child is just “typical” football player roughhousing. The public outcry following the news of the NFL players’ domestic battery was appropriate and will hopefully lead to reformation NFL-wide.

Don’t the teenaged players who suit up week and after week, carrying the hopes, dreams and projections of their communities, deserve our outrage about the peril they face?

That deafening outcry about the criminally violent nature of the players’ personal lives is exactly why the silence about these young players’ deaths is so troubling. Are we going to bury those players, shrug our shoulders, and hope that the statistics on high school players’ deaths stay low enough that we don’t actually have to do anything about how the game is played when the field is populated by young players whose cerebral cortexes are still developing?

According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, eight players died last year playing football — all of them in high school. The three deaths this week and the early September death of another player on Staten Island bring us half way to last year’s total, and it’s only October. There’s still plenty of football left in the season.

Don’t our sons deserve better from us? Don’t the teenaged players who suit up week and after week, carrying the hopes, dreams and projections of their communities, deserve our outrage about the peril they face? While there may be no way to eliminate the risks inherent in football, we should be minimizing those and engaging the soul-searching that the NFL has been forced to do. How many more teenagers will have to give their lives before communities stand up and demand greater safety just like we demanded that the NFL begin taking its players’ domestic violence seriously?

RELATED: The Ray Rice Incident Forces Us to Talk to Our Kids

As the mother of a 3-year-old son who showing early signs of loving the pigskin, I say eight a year is too many. We should make this safer. No one should die from playing a game.

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