How Safe Are Our Youngest Athletes?

The death last week from a head injury of Taylor Davison, a 10-year-old girl from Bartlett, Ill., who collapsed during football practice, raised a host of fears and questions for parents and coaches. Is tackle football too dangerous for the grammar-school set? What about hockey? Soccer's safe, isn't it? But despite the soul-searching and second-guessing prompted by such high-profile cases, experts say efforts to prevent injuries among the country's youngest athletes are hampered by a dearth of information about what is actually happening on the playing fields. No one really knows how many kids get hurt--and how severely--playing youth sports each year. "There is a serious lack of data about what types of injuries are occurring," says Dr. Reginald Washington, a pediatric cardiologist and the chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness. A report in the current issue of Pediatrics, an AAP journal, notes that while high-school and college athletes are the focus of numerous injury-reporting systems, "there have been few studies done to investigate injury rates, frequencies and severity" among children in organized sports.

Without such basic information, it's hard to know for sure what is a risk and what isn't. Is heading the ball bad for young soccer players? Is checking OK in youth hockey? If doctors and educators are going to take a stand on such issues and make it stick, they need solid evidence to back them up. "Right now we are backing it up largely with intuition," says Washington.

It could be years before the necessary studies are done. In the meantime, the researchers from the University of Pittsburgh who authored the Pediatrics study recommend some immediate steps that could reduce injury risk in youth sports. One is for leagues to provide and require first-aid training for coaches, including recognition and immediate response to head, neck and spine injuries. Leagues should also have clear and enforceable return-to-play rules for concussions and other serious injuries. Losing should be the worst thing that happens in a kids' game.