Concussions among youth athletes getting a serious look

SHOREHAM, NY - Varsity lineman Tom Cutinella took a hard hit during an afternoon game. The 16-year-old underwent emergency surgery, but doctors were unable to save him.

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Tom Cutinella
CBS News

"(There was) a lot of crying, a lot of hugging, a lot of questions, a lot of shock," said Dan Holtzman, Cutinella's principal at Shoreham-Wading River High School.

Deaths among the nation's estimated one million high school football players are rare. Cutinella was the third this year, all within the past week. Last season nationwide, six high school players died of head trauma.

But head injuries among amateurs are not rare. All football players including high schoolers have a 75% chance of suffering a concussion. Between 136,000 and 3000,000 sustain one each year. 34% of college players have suffered a concussion and 20% have had more than one.

Even the very young are not immune. A Virginia Tech study of seven- and eight-year-olds showed them receiving hits of 80 Gs, the same force dealt by college players.

Parents are taking notice. Between 2008 and 2012, youth participation in the sport is down 5.4%.

Bret Strachan coaches youth football in Maryland. Even though he believes football is safe, he's having a hard time fielding a full team.

"Our numbers are down," he says. "The league was reduced to seven teams. We're down now to five teams."

Chris Nowinski, head of concussion research for the Sports Legacy Institute, says that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Nowinski was asked if he thought concussions are an existential threat to the sport of football.

"I do think that parents need to think long and hard when they introduce their son to tackle football," he explained. "Because the younger you start the more years they'll will play, the more concussions they'll have and the worse off that the'lll be.

"You don't need to start young to learn those skills, so the cost benefit especially when they're young needs to be reevaluated."

Since 1938, more than 680 players have died, mostly through helmet-to-helmet contact. It should be noted that players in other youth sports including soccer and hockey also get concussions.

The NCAA is looking at rules similar to those the NFL recently adopted, which gives medical personnel the authority to overrule a coach and keep a player out of a game if a head injury is suspected. But school districts have their own individual rules regarding concussions in sports.