Excessive Heat and Bad Coaching Are Killing Young Football Players

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The environment has changed. Old-school attitudes, tragically, have not.

This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

At the end of a preseason football practice in late July, Myzelle Law, a 19-year-old defensive lineman for MidAmerica Nazarene University in Kansas, returned to the locker room, and began showing signs of seizure. It was hot outside, but Law’s internal body temperature had reached 108F, his family said. He died about a week later, of heat-related illness.

Last summer, the same thing happened to the 17-year-old lineman Phillip Laster Jr, a rising senior at Brandon high school in Mississippi. In 2021, 16-year-old Drake Geiger, a player for Omaha South high school in Nebraska, died after collapsing on a practice field.

They aren’t the only ones. Between 2018 and 2022, at least 11 football players in the US—at the student and professional level—have died of heat stroke. And the number of young athletes diagnosed with exertional heat illness has been increasing over the past decade or so, as unprecedented, extreme heat butts up against football season.

This summer, the hottest on record in North America, teams across the US have been forced to reckon with a changing climate. High school and college teams in searing south-west states—where temperatures rarely dropped below 110F (43.3C) this summer – escaped to practice in the mountains, or by the coast. Teams took to practicing at dawn, before temperatures became unsafe. Friday night games were held later in the evening, or pushed to the next morning.

And under the searing late summer sun, athletes and coaches are increasingly questioning the sport’s macho, push-past-the-pain mentality. Coaches acquired wet-bulb thermometers, which account for humidity as well as air temperature, to better measure heat stress, as well as cold immersion tubs to treat heat stroke.

“We’re having these heatwaves that are lasting longer. They are more severe than ever before. And they’re touching geographic regions that formerly didn’t experience them,” said Jessica Murfree, a sports ecologist at the University of Cincinnati. “The opportunity to play sports like football is diminishing as a result.”

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