Editorial: After tragedy, searching for answers

A flag flies at half-mast at Shoreham-Wading River High School last week following the death of junior Tom Cutinella. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)
A flag flies at half-mast at Shoreham-Wading River High School last week following the death of junior Tom Cutinella. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)

When tragedy strikes, it’s only natural to wonder what, if anything, could have been done to prevent it. When a life is lost on the athletic fields at far too young an age, the emotional toll cuts deep to the core of a community. 

Fatalities in athletics often lead to a renewed focus on safety. When a baseball player was struck by lightning 30 years ago and died on a Patchogue-Medford field, what followed was a strict lightning/thunder policy for high school games in Suffolk County. Two years after a Northport boy died from a blow to the chest while playing lacrosse, state legislation passed in 2002 made it a requirement for school districts to have at least one functional automated external defibrillator, a vital tool to save the life of someone suffering from cardiac arrest.

The unfortunate death of Tom Cutinella last week from an apparent head injury during a football game has no easy answers, no simple legislation to pass or available tool to save future lives. But it does emphasize an issue that has become prevalent at all levels of football: brain injuries and concussions.

The potential for long-term health repercussions from playing football is undoubtedly real and can no longer be brushed aside. From the NFL down, more research and education is needed.

At a school like Shoreham-Wading River, athletes are required to pass a physical and have a parent complete a detailed health history before being cleared to play. By signing that form, student and parent also acknowledge that they have read and understood a Concussion Management Brochure.

These are the kind of steps schools are taking to educate athletes on the dangers of concussions and other head injuries.

Still, more can be done.

Why, for example, limit relevant education to the athletes, and on the eve of the season?

One school district in Canada, featured in a New York Times story Sunday, has introduced a course on concussions and other traumatic brain injuries into the districtwide curriculum. It plans to roll out modified versions of the course to students as young as third grade, the Times reported, adding that it’s believed to be the first school district in North America to implement such a detailed program. The best bet to improve safety likely starts with education.

Concussions and other head injuries, by their nature, can be difficult to detect, even for trained medical personnel.

We may never know exactly what caused Tom Cutinella’s death. But his legacy can serve as an inspiration to make educating students on head injuries paramount.