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Why college football players are still dying preventable deaths

At the College Park campus, University of Maryland students gathered Thursday afternoon at the steps of an administrative building to remember student-athlete Jordan McNair and to share competing calls to action. (WTOP/Michelle Basch)

WASHINGTON — When University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair collapsed during a workout last spring, doctors who are experts in the field say his death was 100 percent preventable. And yet, it’s not the anomaly you might think it is, either.

Since the year 2000, more than 30 college football players have collapsed and died during workouts. That number climbs to more than 50 when you factor in other Division 1 athletes.

During the same period of time, only one NFL player has suffered the same fate. In 2001, Korey Stringer collapsed and died during a training camp workout with the Minnesota Vikings.

What’s behind the disparity?

“It has a multifaceted answer,” said Dr. Douglas Casa, the CEO of the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut. “One of the factors is that the players have no representation at the college level. There’s no union, nobody to look out for them in terms of making sure we don’t have ridiculous strength and condition sessions.”

A school has never been punished by the NCAA because one of its athletes has died after a practice, he said.

“Can you imagine if the NCAA put as much effort into protecting college football players as they did worrying about what to do about all the money (that) comes in,” Casa said. “We would never have to worry about a death. There would be best practices implemented at every level.”

“At the pro level you have representation,” Casa said. “At the pro level they’re seeing them more as a big investment and you’re not going to something that’s going to jeopardize the health and safety of one of your players you’re paying $25 million a year to. In college they’re disposable. These are dispensable commodities. They can just put another player in their spot.”

That dynamic comes even as college are putting more emphasis on workouts, Casa said, part of what he calls the “arms race” in the strength and conditioning sector.

“We have a situation where we have unchecked strength and conditioning profession able to do whatever they want to do,” Casa said. “A lack of supervision on site and a lack of regulation on the national level create a problematic scenario.”

While the strength and conditioning coach at the University of Maryland was hired by the recently fired coach DJ Durkin, there was ambiguity about who he actually reported to. Casa said it should be crystal clear, and that the strength coach should never report to the head football coach.

Casa said the NCAA has also missed the opportunity to take action and enact standards that would help athletes.

“In 2012 we released a document, ‘Preventing Sudden Death in Collegiate Conditioning Sessions,’ which was endorsed by 14 leading sports medicine organizations,” he said. “The NCAA did not endorse that document or did not bring those recommendations forward to invoke new policy. And the problem continues.”


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