In September of 2007 in North San Diego County, Scott Eveland suffered a catastrophic injury during a high school football game. Eveland was a linebacker with the Mission Hills Grizzlies in San Marcos, about thirty-five miles northeast of San Diego. According to an assistant student-trainer’s deposition, Eveland had complained of headaches weeks prior to the game. Before that night’s game, he even asked to sit out the first quarter due to a head pain, according to the deposition. He played anyway.
No matter the level of play—pop warner to professional—head trauma is a typical risk of football. What was not typical for Eveland? He had to be rushed to the hospital whenhe collapsed on the sideline during the game. Doctors performed emergency surgery to remove part of his skull, alleviating the bleeding on his swollen brain. The brain injury has stolen his ability to speak and care for himself. His family attends to him twenty-four hours a day and he will be in a wheelchair, most likely, for the rest of his life.
Like most cases involving injuries and school sports, this one was not settled in court and the school admits no wrongdoing. Schools have long been protected by the legal determination that players accept inherit risk when they participate in athletic endeavors. The San Marcos Unified School District has, of course, admitted no wrongdoing; but it has settled with the Eveland family for $4.4 million.
One of the challenges of this case is the issue it spotlights: when is assumed risk a cover for negligence? The school district and coach at Mission Hills High School may not be directly responsible for all of the sports injuries that their players suffer, but who is? Most school districts avoid lawsuits by asserting that players assume a certain amount of risk when they play an organized sport. This defense has shielded many districts for many years.
Whether Eveland complained of head pain or not and whether or not the deposition would have been helpful in court, this question must be asked: was the teenager supposed to stand up in front of his teammates, his coaches, and his peers to say “I can’t play because I fear I may suffer a traumatic brain injury”? When are adult guardians responsible for stepping in and protecting their young athletes from “inherent risks”?
The culture of football and competitive sports in general make a virtue of playing through pain. Young athletes must be better protected from such a culture. Perhaps the Eveland settlement and the NFL players’ current lawsuit against the league will bring aboutchanges. Maybe players, trainers, coaches and other authorities at all levels of the game will get the training and support they need to bolster safety. The questions will still remain: at what point does football become so safe that it fails to resemble football? How many injuries are fans, coaches and administrators willing to tolerate for support of America’s most popular sport?