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Football safety in question after high school players’ deaths

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NEW YORK — It was a heartbreaking week for three families, football teams and communities. Three players from three different states — Alabama, North Carolina and New York — died last week. And while investigations are underway in each case, it is believed the deaths may have been related to football.

In the most recent incident, a Long Island 16-year-old reportedly suffered a serious head injury during a varsity game. He was rushed to the hospital and died after surgery.

I can’t even imagine what his family and the others are going through. As Gina Rau, a mom of two in Portland, Oregon, put it, “We shouldn’t lose our children this way.”

No, we should not.

As we’ve learned more and more about the dangers of concussions and head injuries in football, including from research on the brains of professional players who died, we have definitely seen a drop in the number of kids playing the game.

Participation in Pop Warner youth football leagues dropped 9.5% from 2010 to 2012, according to a report last year by ESPN.com.

Now, after three deaths in a short time, the question is whether more parents will decide the sport is too violent and dangerous for their children.

On one side are parents like John Furjanic of Chicago, who played football through high school and during college at Yale. He says his 7-year-old daughter will never play football, and if he had a son, he would never let him play either.

“I have had over 10 concussions playing football,” said Furjanic, who says he was coached by some of the best in the business. “No coaching technique can result in safety when the point of playing defense is to play with reckless abandon. The kids today call it blowing people up. The game is violent, and people get hurt in violent games.”

On the other side are parents like Ben Smith, chief executive officer of Wanderful Media, whose eighth-grader plays football.

Smith said he has certainly thought about the risks, but says the training put in place in children’s programs during the last few years has given him the confidence to let his son play.

That training is part of the Heads Up Football program funded by the NFL. Coaches are educated on how to deal with concussions and how to teach safer ways to tackle, where players are taught to keep their heads up and to lead contact with their shoulders, not their heads.

“Hitting has dramatically changed the game from when I was on the field over 20 years ago,” Smith said.

“In the end, it comes down to the league, training and coaches. You have to be comfortable that they are putting safety first.”

Amanda Rodriguez of Frederick, Maryland, says her 9-year-old is more passionate about football than just about anything else, and her 6-year-old just started playing, as well. She urged her sons’ league to adopt the Heads Up Football program and it did.

“I think that it’s something you can definitely see in how the younger kids are playing versus how the older boys are playing football because it’s a whole different way of playing,” said Rodriguez, a mom of three and host of the blog DudeMom.com. “So I feel safer knowing that my kids are playing in a league that is doing something proactive about their safety.”

Like any parent, Rodriguez says she has her concerns but what helps her is putting the dangers in perspective.

“The risk is there, but the reward is so great, it’s a risk that we take and statistically I don’t think … that risk (rivals) things like riding in a car or riding your bike.”

Other parents whose children play football pointed to sports such as horseback riding and gymnastics that can also be dangerous for children, but said the dangers of those sports often don’t get as much attention as football.

“Because of its inherently violent nature, football is often singled out for scrutiny re: head injuries and head/neck injury deaths,” said David Hawkins of Ann Arbor, Michigan, whose son plays football.

According to a report by the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, deaths in football are “rare but tragic events,” with 17 direct and indirect deaths during the 2013 football season out of approximately 1.1. million high school players.

Gina Rau of Portland, Oregon, whose 10-year-old is a talented soccer player, says she was initially thrilled he wasn’t interested in football because of her concerns about head injuries. Then, she learned that concussions are just as common in soccer.

“Thankfully, there is so much attention to the long-term potential damage of concussions that clubs, associations and parents are taking this issue seriously,” she said.

There has been increased education on how to identify a concussion and the league doesn’t allow kids at age 10 to drop-kick the ball, she said.

Ironically, it was Rau, who ended up with a mild concussion while watching her son’s game. The mom, who runs her own marketing and brand consulting business, was injured after an older boy kicked the ball over two goals and it rammed right into her head.

“Because of that situation, I feel like I’m better educated as a parent as to what to look for in case my child is injured,” she said. “We pray that we never need that knowledge though.”

Terry Greenwald, a divorced father of three, says his son was only 5 when he started playing ice hockey, another sport known for its concussion issues. His son is 26 now and never suffered a serious injury, but Greenwald thinks back to when his son was a senior in high school and was asked to play football.

“I adamantly said ‘No,’ ” said Greenwald, who based his decision on the fact that his son had never played the game before. “It is my opinion that when a child begins playing a sport with injuries like this, they learn proper techniques to protect themselves and how to avoid causing severe injuries to others.”

“I am confident that saying no was the right decision for my son. I would not presume to make that decision for anyone else,” he said.

“I believe in sports, but I also believe each person needs to consider a lot of factors when choosing which sport to participate in and that a parent’s responsibility is to choose wisely when allowing their child to make this decision.”

Children’s television host Miss Lori, a mother of three, remembers when her son was choosing between basketball and football.

Both sports have a connection to her family, she said. Her adopted father played for the Harlem Globetrotters, while her birth father, whom she only met once, played college football and was drafted by a professional team. He died of dementia before he reached 60 and she wonders if his deteriorating condition was related to his participation in football.

As her son, who excelled in many sports, was deciding which to focus on, she left the decision to him — but quietly prayed he’d pass on football.

“Silently I said a prayer to the sports gods above to put basketball first and firmly in his dreams. It worked and I am grateful,” said the social media specialist and Babble.com contributor.

What sport a child may or may not play is an individual parent’s decision — or an individual child’s decision. As Amanda Rodriguez told me, if a child is passionate about a sport or an instrument or some other activity, wouldn’t a parent want to nurse those passions?

And while there is definite debate over whether football has become too dangerous for our children knowing what we know now, it’s clear there’s agreement on a key way to help keep our kids safe: making sure safety is the top focus.

Louise Sattler, a psychologist, educational consultant and mom of two grown children in southern California, said her son played school and regional soccer for years, and suffered one concussion and several other injuries. While opposing coaches always urged him to keep playing, she praised her son’s “astute team coach” who was always cautious and would send him off the field and to the emergency room.

“As with everything in our lives, including football, soccer and other sports, common sense and safety need to prevail,” said Sattler, who is also the owner of a business providing sign language instruction.

“The lesson that we care about health and safety far outweighs the game.”

Would you or do you let your kids play football? Tell Kelly Wallace on Twitter or CNN Living on Facebook.