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Death of Damon Janes shows the need for better care at high school football games

There is an especially sad fact in the story of Damon Janes’ foreshortened life. It’s not simply that the 16-year-old running back died playing the game he loved, but that his death was almost certainly preventable. An athletic trainer needed to be at that game, and at every school’s football games.

Football is, by its nature, a violent sport. When teenagers are playing it, they need to be supervised by experts who can identify risks and pull students out, as necessary. Coaches aren’t trained in that and the players, themselves, literally might not have a clue.

That certainly was the case with Janes, who was a fierce competitor and was loathe to quit. That’s an admirable quality in most instances; too many people give up on their goals too quickly. But Janes, tragically, didn’t stop until it was too late.

By the time the Westfield/Brocton junior took himself out of the game on Sept. 13, 2013, he was already catastrophically injured. Repeated hits to the head caused his brain to swell and bleed. He slumped over and never regained consciousness.

But what if someone trained to spot injured or at-risk players was at the sideline of every game? That doesn’t have to be a doctor. A certified athletic trainer could serve the purpose.

A trainer’s job – only job – would be to watch the players with the express purpose of protecting their health. It’s not a new idea. As The News reported last month in a story by Matthew Spina, brain experts who focus on sports injuries urge schools to place a health care professional on the sideline to watch for concussions that might not be obvious to others. The State Education Department also likes that idea.

But hundreds of New York high schools, including Westfield/Brocton, have gone without them. Fortunately, the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation and the NFL Foundation have stepped in to provide a dozen Western New York schools, including Westfield/Brocton, with a health professional at games.

It is impossible, of course, to declare that Janes would be alive today had there been an athletic trainer at the game last year, especially given other issues surrounding the teenager’s injury, including a slow initial response by emergency workers. But it’s no stretch either to acknowledge the possibility of it. And the need is plain.

It’s not just that a young Western New Yorker died from severe football injuries last year. Seven other athletes died in 2013 as a direct result of high school football, the most since 2001, according to an annual survey conducted for the American Football Coaches Association and three other organizations. In October of this year, alone, three players died over a single week, all from apparent brain injuries.

Yes, that’s three of thousands of young players, but how many died that week from playing tennis or soccer, or from swimming or cross-country or even hockey? If this isn’t a crisis in American high schools, then it’s something awfully close to that. Death shouldn’t be among the predictable outcomes from participating in any school activity. With football, at least as it is played in some schools, it is.

Some schools may have trouble affording the services of an athletic trainer, but the answer to that is: So what? Some people have trouble affording car insurance, but they get no pass on the legal requirement to carry it. If Albany needs to help – and to establish other rules that help to protect players – then so be it.

But better to drop football altogether than to continue to put students at the kind of avoidable risk that took Damon Janes’ life.