FRONTLINE investigates the new face of high school football by following the Shiloh Christian High School team in Football High, airing on the Arkansas Educational Television Network (AETN) Tuesday, April 12, at 9 p.m.
Corporate sponsorships, nationally televised games, minute-by-minute coverage on sports websites for players, parents and coaches, high school football has never been bigger. This episode of FRONTLINE examines whether enough is being done to ensure players safety as the intensity of the sport grows.
Football observers and sports journalists alike agree that on average, high school players size, speed and strength have increased dramatically over the past five to 10 years with some players weighing in at more than 300 pounds.
The ramping up of pressure on high school kids…and the increase of media attention on high school football, my God, in the last 10 years, its become like a little NFL, Gregg Easterbrook, a writer and columnist for ESPN, said.
FRONTLINE centers its investigation in Arkansas, where two players collapsed from heatstroke last year while practicing during one of the hottest summers on record. The players were placed in the same intensive care unit in Little Rock, both having suffered extensive damage to their internal organs. One survived, but the other died in the hospital three months after his collapse.
There should never, ever be a person [dying] from exertional heatstroke, because its 100 percent preventable, Dr. Doug Casa, a leading expert on heatstroke, said.
In the wake of the tragedy in Arkansas, FRONTLINE investigates the differences in the two boys fates. Only one of the boys teams had an athletic trainer on staff, which reflects the reality in most of Arkansas: Only 15 percent of the schools in the state have a certified medical professional at games and practices, slightly below the national average.
Football High follows the Shiloh Christian Saints, a private school team in Springdale, detailing the teams intense year-round training regimen. During the playing season, head injuries sustained by one Shiloh running back illuminate the dangers of the estimated 60,000 concussions suffered each year by high school football players.
In 2010, researchers discovered a degenerative mental disease in the brain of 21-year-old Owen Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania football player who committed suicide last year and had never reported a concussion throughout his football career.
Thomas brain showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the same mental degenerative disease rampant in the brains of NFL players with serious mental problems.
It has totally changed what I thought about this game, researcher Dr. Ann McKee said. Anybody whos playing the game, this could happen; this could be the result.
Football High is a FRONTLINE production with Ark Media produced by Rachel Dretzin and Caitlin McNally and written and directed by Dretzin.
FRONTLINE is produced by WGBH Boston and is broadcast nationwide on PBS. Funding for FRONTLINE is provided through the support of PBS viewers and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Major funding for FRONTLINE is provided by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and by Reva and David Logan. Additional funding is provided by the Park Foundation and the FRONTLINE Journalism Fund.
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