By JARED SHELLY, senior editor/web editor of Risk & Insurance®
Sports fans are used to hearing about professional players sustaining serious injuries. Professional players are big and fast and they when they tackle someone, they mean to tackle them hard. Injuries are simply part of the game.
But when a helmet-to-helmet hit kills a 16-year-old high school football > player, many are left baffled. Ridge Barden, a defensive tackle for John C. Birdlebough High School in Phoenix, N.Y., fell to the ground in the third quarter of a recent game. He sprung right back up, but then collapsed after the following play. He died just hours later.
The effects of cumulative head trauma in the National < Football > League have been widely publicized and the league has been increasing fines and penalties for hits to the head over the last two seasons. Measures are also being taken to prevent professional players who have suffered a head injury to return to the field too quickly.
But, as Barden's death confirms, risks of head injuries are also very real at the high school level -- especially when protective equipment may not quite be up to standards and mismatches in size and strength can be even more pronounced than at the pro level, pitting smaller student-athletes against much larger ones.
In Barden's case, however, the hit was a routine collision, according to coaches interviewed in the New York Times. His helmet was a two-year-old Riddell Revolution, a widely used brand, and the helmet had been reconditioned before the start of this season, according to the Times. Another logical place to stake blame would be the first responders, but the article reported that Barden was treated quickly and only a CT scan -- which typically comes hours later -- would have revealed his need for immediate surgery.
Heat exhaustion is also a big risk -- whether in the pros or the younger ranks. In NFL training camps held during the dog days of summer, players frequently battle against heat exhaustion and take ice baths to cool down. In 2001, Korey Stringer a 27-year-old offensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings died of heat stroke during practice, setting off changes in the league's procedures, like wearing light colored uniforms and limiting the number of workout repetitions.
At the high school level, safety procedures surely vary from school to school, and may not be quite as comprehensive as in the pros. Just this summer, four high school athletes died at < football > practices, according to the Orlando Sentinel: Isaiah Laurencin, 16, an offensive lineman in Orlando died in July after collapsing during a conditioning drill; Tyquan Brantley, a 14-year-old in South Carolina, died just hours after collapsing during practice; Donteria Searcy, a 16-year-old from Georgia, was found unresponsive after morning practice; and Forrest Jones, 16, from Georgia passed out during a voluntary conditioning session and never regained consciousness.
Public school districts typically purchase primary general liability insurance policy of about $1 million to $2 million (but it could be as much as $5 million) -- < football > and other contact sports are usually covered under that, said Mark Turkalo, a senior vice president and National Education & Public Entity Placement leader for Marsh. Such a policy will protect the school district against liability associated with the death or injury of a student athlete. Private schools will typically purchase more limits, he said, because state tort caps will limit the amount of money that a public school could be held liable for.
Carriers, meanwhile, have been concerned about the risks of < football > for quite some time, and have been trying unsuccessfully to exclude all contact sports from general liability insurance policies, said Turkalo. < Football, especially, is simply too popular and too widespread to be excluded from general liability coverage though.
When underwriters craft such a policy, they examine a school's athletic trainers and first responders as well as equipment and hydration practices. They also figure out how rigorous the practice schedule is, and more and more high schools and colleges are implementing policies against two-a-day practices, especially in the heat of summer. That could possibly be a trickle down effect from the NFL, which banned two-a-days as part of its collective bargaining agreement before the start of this season.
"As long as the schools are working on it, said Turkalo, "[the carriers] will maintain the coverage."
October 25, 2011
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