Keeping Student Athletes Safe

Fred Mueller knows his findings aren’t typical and he’s glad for that. As head of the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, he sees the worst-case scenarios, like the 15-year-old baseball player who died from a ruptured blood clot in his abdomen after diving for a ground ball during a 2004 game, or the 17-year-old wrestler who was paralyzed after taking a hit from his opponent earlier that year.

In reality, the vast majority of injuries suffered by student athletes are not life threatening. The National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA) estimates that about one-third of the 7.5 million students who play interscholastic sports will get hurt, but only about a quarter of those incidents will require a doctor’s visit.

“Catastrophic injuries are few and far between,” Mueller says. “But something like permanent paralysis is shocking to the community and to the athletes themselves.”

Even more shocking, research suggests that about half of all injuries in organized sports could be prevented. Better equipment and regulations, more training, and more qualified staff could go a long way toward that end. But for school districts already stretched thin on money, finding qualified coaches has become harder, replenishing equipment and maintaining sports grounds has become pricier, and the financial and legal risks associated with sponsoring athletic programs have escalated.

Herb Appenzeller, who has written or edited 18 books on sports-related litigation, estimates that several hundred lawsuits are filed against schools, colleges, or recreational facilities each year. Some suits are brought by overzealous parents unhappy over coaching decisions, but many seek millions of dollars in damages because of safety issues or violations that could have been prevented.

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