The American football season is intensifying, with the unfortunate occurrence of young players losing their lives.


The American football season is intensifying, with the unfortunate occurrence of young players losing their lives.

In recent years, nearly a dozen American football players have tragically succumbed to heat-related incidents as teams grapple with the challenges of training in an evolving climate.

On a scorching late July day, following a pre-season football practice, 19-year-old Myzelle Law, a defensive lineman at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Kansas, returned to the locker room displaying alarming signs of a seizure. Despite the sweltering heat outdoors, Law’s core body temperature had soared to a staggering 108°F (42.2°C), as reported by his family. Tragically, he passed away approximately a week later due to complications arising from heat-related illness.

The previous summer saw a chillingly similar incident involving 17-year-old lineman Phillip Laster Jr, an upcoming senior at Brandon High School in Mississippi. Additionally, in 2021, 16-year-old Drake Geiger, a player at Omaha South High School in Nebraska, met a devastating end after collapsing during a practice session.

They are not alone in facing these challenges. Between 2018 and 2022, at least 11 football players in the United States, spanning both the student and professional levels, tragically lost their lives due to heat stroke. Furthermore, the number of young athletes diagnosed with exertional heat illness has been on the rise over the past decade, a trend exacerbated by the clash between football season and increasingly unprecedented and extreme heat.

This summer, which marked the hottest on record in North America, football teams throughout the country found themselves compelled to confront the changing climate head-on. High school and college teams in blistering southwestern states, where temperatures scarcely dipped below 110°F (43.3°C), sought refuge in mountainous or coastal areas for practice sessions. To mitigate the dangers of extreme heat, teams shifted their practice schedules to the early morning hours before temperatures became perilous. Friday night games were either rescheduled for later in the evening or postponed until the following morning.

Beneath the relentless late summer sun, both athletes and coaches have begun to question the sport’s traditional “push-past-the-pain” mentality, recognizing the need for a more safety-conscious approach. Coaches have introduced wet-bulb thermometers, capable of factoring in humidity alongside air temperature, to more accurately gauge heat stress. Additionally, they have implemented cold immersion tubs as a means to promptly address and treat heat stroke cases.

We are witnessing the emergence of prolonged and more severe heatwaves that are encroaching into regions previously untouched,” expressed Jessica Murfree, a sports ecologist from the University of Cincinnati. “This, in turn, is diminishing the opportunities to engage in sports like football.”

For Max Clark, a sophomore quarterback at the College of Idaho, each new football season commencing in August feels progressively hotter. He remarked, “With each passing year, it seems like an increasing portion of our season is dominated by unbearable and uncomfortable heat.”

Last year, during his tenure as quarterback for the Arizona State Sun Devils, practice sessions were particularly grueling. To circumvent the scorching temperatures, practices commenced at 6 am, allowing the team to conclude before the day’s peak heat. Home games were scheduled after sunset, as he observed, “People are reluctant to even sit in the stands when it’s 103°F (39.4°C).” His transfer to the College of Idaho did little to alleviate the situation, as Boise found itself ensnared under a stifling heat dome for a considerable part of July.

In order to ward off heat-related illnesses, Clark diligently monitors his nutrition throughout the day and remains hydrated on and off the field. He stressed, “It’s all about preparing for the heat because there’s no real escape from it.”

Athletes worldwide, spanning various sports and levels, are grappling with similar realizations. Renowned World Cup-winning midfielder Sam Mewis has openly discussed how extreme heat and wildfire smoke have impacted her performance. This year, the US Open adapted its rules to partially enclose the stadium roof, providing shade for players during a blistering heatwave on the east coast.

American football players remain among the most vulnerable when it comes to heat-related illnesses. A study conducted in 2013 revealed that the rate of exertional heat illness in high school football was a staggering 11.4 times higher than that of all other sports combined.

The commencement of the football season coincides not only with the hottest period in many parts of North America but also aligns with hurricane season in the southern regions and peak wildfire season in the western areas. In Idaho, smoky skies have become an unwelcome association for many players and fans, according to Clark. Unlike athletes in sports like cross country running or soccer, football players don heavy padding and safety gear, making it more challenging for them to cool down effectively.

Another complicating factor is the artificial grass on which both students and professionals play. Research indicates that synthetic turf can become up to 60°F (15.5°C) hotter than natural grass, emitting temperatures exceeding 160°F (71°C) on summer days.

Most instances of heat illness occur at the beginning of the season or during pre-season, as players return to the field after extended off-season breaks. It can take two weeks or more for their bodies to adapt to rigorous outdoor workouts. Certain medications, including commonly prescribed ones for depression and ADHD, can also increase players’ susceptibility to heat illness.

Linemen, who are often the largest and heaviest players on the team, face additional vulnerability. Karissa Niehoff, CEO of the National Federation of State High School Association, explained, “They don’t cool off as effectively as players with leaner body types. The majority of heat-related illnesses in football involve linemen.”

According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, nearly a dozen football players lost their lives to heat stroke between 2018 and 2022. However, this figure may be an underestimate, as not all football-related deaths are reported to the center or clearly linked to heat in autopsy reports.

The risks are even more pronounced for young athletes of color, who are more likely to attend schools and live in “heat island” neighborhoods devoid of shade and green spaces. Ruth Engel, an environmental data scientist at UCLA specializing in microclimates, pointed out, “Imagine living in a place without air conditioning, lacking sufficient shade during your walk to school, and attending a school without air conditioning. By the time you have to play football, you’ve never had a chance to cool down – so you start at a significant disadvantage.”

The changing climate presents a pressing challenge. In 2018, the same year University of Maryland offensive lineman Jordan McNair tragically passed away, the world experienced the fourth hottest year on record.

McNair’s unfortunate incident occurred when the team returned from a month-long break to commence their first workout of the season. It was a warm day, with temperatures just over 80°F (26.6°C) and 70% humidity. During a series of 110-yard sprints, McNair began experiencing cramps by the seventh sprint but continued running. About an hour later, he began foaming at the mouth, and roughly thirty minutes after that, he was rushed to the hospital. Sadly, the 19-year-old succumbed to his condition two weeks later.

I kept asking myself one main question: why?” expressed Marty McNair, reflecting on the tragic loss of his son, Jordan McNair. “What did I miss? What did I miss?”

A comprehensive 74-page independent investigation, commissioned by the university, allocated significant responsibility to the university’s trainers and medical staff. They were found to have neglected to monitor the wet-bulb temperature and adapt training regimens to mitigate the risk of heat-related illnesses. Regrettably, they encouraged McNair to persist with his workout even after he exhibited signs of heat stress, failing to administer life-saving cold-immersion therapy in time.

Ultimately, the university reached an agreement to provide a $3.5 million settlement to Jordan’s family. In the years following the tragedy, the university has implemented new policies aimed at better recognizing and preventing heat stroke incidents. Marty McNair initiated a foundation in his son’s name, dedicated to educating coaches and athletes about heat safety.

Subsequently, amidst a series of scorching football seasons, Marty McNair has noticed an increase in conversations and actions regarding heat safety. He remarked, “Clearly, global warming is a reality, and it will impact the safety of athletes. I believe people are now more receptive to this notion.”

In 2021, the state introduced legislation named after McNair, mandating the establishment of new health and safety standards in Maryland’s athletic programs. Lawmakers have also proposed a federal version of this law.

However, Marty McNair remains acutely aware of significant disparities in the resources and expertise available to schools when it comes to aiding athletes at risk of heat stroke. He noted, “In Black, brown, and rural community teams, you seldom witness the use of a wet-bulb globe thermometer because they often lack even the most fundamental resources.”

Nevertheless, as the climate undergoes transformations, McNair believes that the football culture must adapt accordingly. He emphasized, “I always advised Jordan to be coachable. I taught him that if he ever felt uncomfortable doing something a coach asked him to do, he should prioritize listening to his body above all else.

These are still young athletes,” emphasized Zac Taylor, struggling to recollect the sensations in his body before his 2018 collapse on the football field. The scorching heat had subjected his high school varsity team to approximately 280 grueling “up-down” push-ups, following two hours of relentless sprints and drills as a penalty for their lackluster performance during a scrimmage.

Taylor’s memory goes dark after that point, only to awaken in a hospital bed a week later. Upon his discharge, he had shed over 50 pounds, as recounted by his mother, Maggie Taylor. In response to this harrowing experience, Maggie and a group of parents established a nonprofit organization. Their mission involves donating safety and medical equipment to school teams while also educating young athletes about recognizing signs of heat exhaustion.

A critical component of this effort revolves around teaching players to temper their pace and urging coaches to exercise restraint. This approach often conflicts with prevailing norms in football culture. (As Coach Boone, portrayed by Denzel Washington, proclaims in “Remember the Titans,” “Water is for cowards.”) Coaches, many of whom were themselves brought up under the same regimen of tough love, often incentivize players to push themselves beyond their physical limits.

Maggie Taylor elucidated, “There’s a prevailing culture of ‘keep pushing,’ characterized by punishing practices and the fear that halting will result in losing one’s place on the team. This is how many of these traditional football coaches operate.”

As pointed out by Jessica Murfree, the sports ecologist, part of the issue stems from the shifting environment in which today’s athletes participate in sports, which differs significantly from the conditions experienced by their coaches during their playing days. Year after year, we surpass records for extreme heat and catastrophic events, highlighting the urgency of adapting to a changing climate.

While the risk of heat illness is most pronounced among very young athletes, particularly at the elementary and middle school levels, studies reveal that teenagers and young adults are the most susceptible to exertional heat stroke. This heightened vulnerability stems from their tendency to ignore their bodies’ warning signals as they strive to achieve their athletic goals.

Jessica Murfree, an expert in the field, highlighted, “These young adults are driven by their desire to make the varsity team, secure playing time, and earn recruitment opportunities from top college teams. They aim to make their coaches and parents proud, but this pursuit can backfire when their bodies are pushed beyond their limits.”

There exists a prevalent notion that young athletes possess superhuman abilities or at least act as if they do, as noted by Marty McNair. He reflected on his son Jordan, a towering figure at 6 feet 5 inches and 300 pounds who wore size 16 shoes, yet he was still just 19 years old. McNair emphasized, “These are still kids.

[Note: The last section appears to be an unrelated advertisement for supporting The Guardian and has been omitted in the rewrite.]


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