The dark side of Friday Night Lights

This article was written by Sandra Porter.

Friday nights are special in the fall. They are filled with football, team spirit, cheer teams, bands and banners. They are intended to be fun competition, excitement, and opportunities to develop sportsmanship.

But this past fall in the La Grange vs. Sweeny game, the game went off the rails. With two minutes remaining, La Grange was driving to tie the game. The comeback seemed a sure thing, until a Sweeny defender intercepted a pass. As the defender was running the ball back, and being ushered out of bounds, my grandson Mason, who was a good 10-15 yards from the action on the play, was pounded by a Sweeny football player -- and critically injured. His spleen was ruptured and he was bleeding internally. With his life hanging in the balance, he was air-lifted to a trauma center in Austin for emergency surgery – one that required 7 units of red blood cells and 2 units of plasma to save his life. Though he survived, for the rest of his days he will be at increased risk for infection as a result of the removal of his spleen. Video of the hit can be viewed above.

That nightmare still haunts me. I can still feel the scare of seeing my grandson in shock trauma ICU and watching my daughter fear for the life of her son. How have we gone from football being a game meant to be a fun extracurricular activity to one that can threaten the lives of our youth? And where is the discipline to ensure sportsmanship?

Notably, the player who hit my grandson was penalized for a personal foul -- but nothing more. There was no further action than a meaningless penalty at the end of a game. My daughter was told by the Superintendent of Sweeny Schools that the Sweeny player was under the team's disciplinary protocol the week following the hit, yet he played the next full district playoff game that week. And, a week after critically-injuring Mason, he gave the opposing team's QB a concussion, with a helmet-to-helmet hit that sent the QB to the hospital.

To be fair, the University Interscholastic League (UIL) website addresses this issue clearly. The protocol for a blatant personal foul should result in the player at fault missing a full half of a game; if it occurs in the second half of the game, the player should miss the first half of their next game. However, the UIL rule was not followed nor enforced. Despite numerous requests by my daughter that the UIL investigate the foul and discipline, the UIL has neither acknowledged her communication nor responded.

Youth participation in football is down across the state. Some suggest the sport is at risk all together, if it does not ensure the safety of its players. To be sure, the game is a contact sport; injuries will happen. But a blatant, punishing and unnecessary hit that threatens a child's life is one that requires our attention.

I write today with two motivations. First, I want to draw attention to safety for the game. Mason's younger brother, a sophomore, loves the game and wants his own Friday night lights experience—but he and others need us to protect the game. Bluntly, it is time that schools and coaches take stronger action to discipline unwarranted injuries, and it is past time for the UIL to take a stronger stance and to look to the examples of the NCAA and the NFL as they work toward a safer game.

And, second, in order to make a positive difference now, my daughter and I have started a GoFundMe page with a goal of providing EvoShield shirts with abdominal and rib protectors for La Grange freshmen, junior and senior varsity football teams. There has been a great deal of healthy attention to protecting against head injuries; these shirts serve to protect the abdomen and ribs. Any donation, no matter how small, is sincerely appreciated.

Interested parties can also donate by tagging the La Grange (Texas) Leopards football team on the Taylor Haugen Foundation website. The foundation was established by Taylor's parents following the death of their 15-year-old son, resulting from a hit to his abdomen during a high school football game.

We hope you will join us to protect our youth and do all we can to make football as safe as possible.

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Player safety is clearly not a concern for the NFL. Composite Getty Image.

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