Student Athletes Shouldn't Be Dying

The sudden deaths of young athletes are often preventable—here are some suggestions.

This year alone, 40 young athletes died from sports-related injuries, many of which were preventable. (Photo: Erik Isakson/Getty Images)

In 1995, eighth grader Kendrick Fincher signed up for the Elmwood Raiders football team in Rogers, Arkansas, and couldn’t wait for football season to begin. 

The morning of his team’s first practice was a hot and humid day in August, and 13-year-old Kendrick experienced heat stroke. His horrified parents rushed to the hospital, and saw their son lying in a drug-induced coma. His organs began to shut down one by one, and Kendrick died 18 days later.

Realizing that their son’s sudden death could have been prevented if coaches and teammates were educated on the dangers of heat illness and the importance of proper hydration, Kendrick’s parents established the Kendrick Fincher Hydration Foundation in his memory. 

The Fincher family’s tragic story is not unique. This year alone, 40 child athletes died from sports-related injuries, many of which were preventable.

On December 6, the National Athletic Trainers' Association (NATA) released a 23-page position statement with recommendations for the prevention, screening, recognition, and treatment of the 10 most common causes of  sudden death in sports.

In addition to exertional heat stroke, the list included cardiac conditions, catastrophic brain injuries, cervical spine injuries, asthma, diabetes, exertional hyponatremia (low blood sodium levels), exertional sickling (pertaining to athletes with sickle cell trait), lightning safety, and head down in contact football.

In conjunction with the position statement’s release, NATA held its annual Youth Sports Safety Summit in D.C. where researchers, athletic trainers, and parents of deceased student-athletes gathered to share their expertise.

In his speech, Francis G. O’Connor, Department of Military and Emergency Medicine Medical Director, mentioned several disturbing findings:

  • The risk of sudden death for young athletes is currently 1 out of 200,000 per year, though many people think actual numbers are closer to 4 or 5 out of 100,000. 
  • Sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death in young athletes, with cardiac conditions accounting for 78 percent of fatalities.
  • Death rates in male athletes are nearly five times higher than in female athletes.
  • African American are at significantly higher risk than Caucasians.
  • Football and basketball account for the majority of sudden deaths.

Sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death in young athletes, with cardiac conditions accounting for 78 percent of fatalities.

How can high schools, athletic organizations, coaches, and parents protect young athletes from fatal injury?  Here are several recommendations:

1. While professional and collegiate sports teams hire an athletic trainer (AT) who is specially trained in preventing, recognizing, and treating potentially life-threatening conditions, nearly half of all high schools and athletic settings lack appropriately licensed medical personnel. NATA’s report stated that the responsibility of saving students’ lives should not fall solely on coaches’ shoulders, and that all schools should hire an AT to attend team practices and games.

2. Every school and athletic facility should have an emergency action plan (EAP) in place to guide officials through emergencies involving an injured child. EAP’s should be reviewed and practiced at least once a year.

3. O’Connor suggested that pre-participation screening exams given to students when they sign up for sports teams should be standardized nationally, and include personal history, family history, and a high-quality physical exam.

4. Marjorie Albohm, NATA’s president, noted that while youth-concussion laws have come a long way over the past several years, other safety issues, such as sudden cardiac arrest and heat illness, haven’t caught lawmakers’ attention. “Ultimately, all of these issues must be legislated,” she said.

When it comes to potentially fatal yet preventable sports-related injuries in children, Albohm mentioned a catchphrase that could be the movement’s motto: “One death is too many.” 

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