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Federal bill eyes studying dangers of high school football

TR1126_football_DD_C.jpgCan Congress make high school football a safer game?

A few federal legislators are trying to.

Three congressmen are making a bipartisan effort to study the game of high school football and create recommendations to make it safer, as “the negative health effects of repeated head trauma have become clearer” over the past several years, the legislation states.

The High School Football Safety Study Act was introduced earlier this month by Reps. Cedric Richmond (D-LA), Ralph Abraham (R-LA) and Bobby Rush (D-IL). The four-page piece of legislation calls on the Health and Human Services Department, in consultation with the Secretary of Education and the President’s Council of Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, to conduct a study “to more precisely identify the causes of deaths related to high school football” and to develop recommendations to prevent future deaths.

The proposal comes just over a year after Shoreham-Wading River junior Thomas Cutinella died shortly after sustaining a hit on the football field. The 16-year-old’s death was one of five direct fatalities that occurred as a result of high school football last year, according to a study by the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research.

In a run that seems to have come straight out of a movie script, the SWR team hasn’t lost a game since Cutinella’s death and the Wildcats captured their second straight Suffolk County Division IV championship last week. The Wildcats face off against Nassau County champ Locust Valley on Friday for the Long Island title.

Since his son died, Frank Cutinella has been working with leaders in Suffolk County sports to improve student-athlete safety on the local level. He plans to speak at a March conference to address athletic directors from across the state and was featured on MSNBC last week in a segment with Rep. Richmond about the federal legislation calling for more study of the issue.

“There needs to be a fundamental change in how we look at football,” he said in the MSNBC interview. “The parents need to change, the coaches need to change, the refs need to change and the players need to change.”

Mr. Cutinella declined further comment this week, saying he is looking forward to the March conference.

According to a report issued by the NCCSIR, about 4.2 million people play football each year, 1.1 million of whom are in high school. Three million play youth football, according to the NCCSIR, which is funded by the NCAA and other amateur football organizations.

Numbers in the report show that between 1931 and 1976, 839 direct fatalities occurred as a result of playing football — from the youth level through the professional level. A rule change was enacted in 1976 that made it illegal to make initial contact with the head and face, commonly called spearing. In the 38 years since, 202 direct fatalities have occurred, the report shows.

The federal legislation mandates that a study into the causes of death — with recommendations about how to prevent them in the future — be completed a year after the legislation is enacted.

Local Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) said he supports the legislation in its current form.

“While I believe that this type of legislation should be done at a state level to best address this issue aggressively, I look forward to reviewing the contents of any report that is issued so that as a community we can better learn how to prevent and address tragic injuries and deaths in high school football,” he said in a statement. “The reality is that more should and must be done to better identify ways to prevent these injuries and deaths.”

Don Webster, executive director of Section XI, the governing body for Suffolk County sports, has had conversations with Mr. Cutinella about improving safety on the field. He said the county already has plans in place for next year.

For example, he said, players will be verbally warned by referees before games begin about the danger of helmet-to-helmet hits, which have come under increasing scrutiny as a cause of concussions.

But in a fast-paced game that mandates physical contact, the results of a study still may not keep everyone safe.

“There is an inherent danger in every sport you’re going to play,” said Riverhead varsity football coach Leif Shay. “You can’t make it a 100 percent kind of thing. I don’t know if there is anything more we can do until research suggests it.”