Editorial: Another football season, another tragedy

The Suffolk County high school football season officially began Monday morning under the shadow of another tragedy, raising new concerns about safety in a sport where brain injuries have become a topic all the way up to the National Football League.

The death of Sachem East High School football player Joshua Mileto, 16, who was killed during an offseason conditioning workout last Thursday, just a few days before the start of practices, sent shock waves across the county.

Joshua was one of five athletes performing a drill that involved carrying a 400-pound log over their heads, according to media reports. The log fell at one point, striking Joshua in the head, according to Suffolk County police. He was transported to Stony Brook University Hospital where he was pronounced dead, police said.

Parents of local football players have understandably questioned coaches on whether a similar drill — which is said to derive from Navy SEAL training — is used in their workouts. Coaches have reassured them that the drill has not been used for their teams. It’s unlikely any high school team on Long Island will ever conduct a similar drill, nor should they — it’s dangerous and unnecessary for teenagers training for varsity sports.

It also raises more questions about how schools oversee out-of-season workouts. Starting from the top, with the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, and moving all the way down to individual athletic departments, a fresh examination of how teams approach workouts should be underway.

While risk is inherent in any sport, safety measures in place are meant to limit the danger as much as possible. Athletic trainers are better equipped now to diagnose concussions in players. The tough-guy mentality that had athletes marching back onto the field after a big hit has waned with increased awareness of the risks, both short- and long-term, for athletes who suffer head injuries. Summer practices are limited to early morning and late afternoon to reduce the threat of heat exhaustion. Still, tragedies can occur, such as at Riverhead High School in 2015, when a player succumbed to heatstroke and spent five weeks in a hospital following the team’s first practice.

We place enormous responsibility on coaches to monitor, guide and protect student-athletes during practices and games. And for all the safety measures that can be put in place, it often comes down to common sense among coaches and players to not push beyond their limits.

The news of Joshua’s death hit particularly close to home in Shoreham-Wading River, where 16-year-old Thomas Cutinella died three years ago after a collision during a game. In the aftermath of that tragedy, Section XI — the governing body of Suffolk County athletics — implemented the “Tommy Tough” football safety standards, which are designed to limit dangerous hits and improve safety education for coaches, players and parents.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report published in January noted that 24 deaths from traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries occurred among high school football players between 2005 and 2014.

“These findings support the need for continued surveillance and safety efforts (particularly during competition) to ensure proper tackling techniques, emergency planning for severe injuries, availability of medical care on site during competitions and assessment that it is safe to return to play following a concussion,” the report states.

The sport will never be risk-free. But that’s no reason to dismiss these kind of tragedies as unpreventable.