Climate considerations for youth sport in hottest years on record

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Jessica R. Murfree, Texas A&M University and Natasha Brison, Texas A&M University

(THE CONVERSATION) At least 50 high school football players in the United States have died of heatstroke after falling ill on the field in the past 25 years. And high school athletes in other sports aren’t immune to risk — female cross-country athletes are twice as likely to suffer from heat-related illnesses as athletes in any other high school sport.

The figures are particularly shocking when you consider that heat-related illnesses and deaths are entirely preventable.

As sports equipment has improved over time to protect against concussions, young players and college athletes face increasing risks from rising heat.

We study the ecology of sport and the legal aspects of sport. With summer temperatures rising, we believe many youth sports leagues and school districts will need to aggressively update their training rules and heat policies to keep their players safe. We suggest that special consideration be given to low-income neighborhoods, minority neighborhoods, and areas that can get excessively hot.

Heat-related risks in youth sports

Every year, summer brings back talk of the severity of sweltering heat. Nine of the world’s 10 hottest years on record date back to 2012, and this year’s late spring and early summer heatwaves were previews of what forecasters predicted would be a brutal summer of 2022. .

Yet at many interscholastic and prep sports summer camps, kids run hard during the summer months, sometimes on days when temperatures hit triple digits.

In a time of rapid climate change, it is essential to ensure that heat-related risks remain avoidable.

Heat is the most common weather-related killer in the United States, with more deaths associated with it than tornadoes, floods and cold temperatures. And days of extreme heat and humidity now exceed levels of concern for human health. Overall, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an average of more than 700 U.S. heat-related deaths each year between 2004 and 2018. Some of the hottest years on record have occurred since then, and data preliminary details detailing heat-related deaths in the United States indicate the rate increased by 56% from 2018 to 2021.

Extreme heat due to climate change is making sports participation increasingly difficult.

For high school athletes, the prevalence of extreme heat leads to increased heat-related illnesses, injuries, hospitalizations and deaths. In fact, heatstroke is one of the leading causes of death among athletes.

Unsurprisingly, the greatest concentration of heat illness among young athletes occurs in August: the season for back-to-school and back-to-sport.

When heat risks trigger lawsuits

Recognizing the warning signs can be especially difficult for children and teens. Young people are still learning to communicate their feelings and experiences, and this can be more difficult in sports environments that promote strength and perseverance. Ultimately, young athletes must trust adults to protect them.

Evidence suggests that the prevalence of exertional heat stroke in high school athletes is largely due to the fact that young athletes do not acclimatize or physically adapt to the heat, especially during first weeks of training. Although heat policies related to temperature and hydration exist at the secondary level, they are not always enforced. And they may need to be improved to reflect global warming given the rate of heat-induced illnesses.

As a result, parents and guardians are faced with how best to defend their children.

In some cases, families have filed lawsuits after heat injuries, both to recover money for their child’s suffering and to drive change in the hope that no more children will have to endure what others have. However, heat injuries continue to increase.

The responsibility of adults to keep children safe in sports settings is becoming blurred, as the growth of legal challenges related to heat-related illnesses demonstrates a mismatch between adult duty of care and athlete well-being. Negligence is a common claim associated with these lawsuits. Allegations of child endangerment or wrongful death may result in civil or criminal litigation. But can responsive legal action prevent these long-term heat injuries?

The fact that heat injuries are preventable is often the reason that lawsuits alleging negligence and wrongful death are successful. Yet heat stress, heat exhaustion, heat stroke and sunstroke are not uncommon in sports. Medical researchers have described heat illness in athletes as one of the most important pieces of evidence of the dangers and effects of climate change on sport.

Climate injustice for young athletes

Extreme heat can also reinforce existing injustices and inequalities.

For example, non-Hispanic black Americans suffer heat-related deaths at a higher rate than the American average. This doubles for Indigenous and Native Americans, who report the highest death rate from heat.

For athletes, the consequences of oppressive heat can further complicate environmental and climate injustices. For example, racial minorities and people in lower socioeconomic brackets are more likely to live in the hottest areas, including urban heat islands, where heat trapped by sidewalks and buildings can make temperatures several degrees warmer than the city average.

At the same time, efforts are underway to diversify the sports landscape and provide equitable access to sport and recreation for all. A vicious circle revolves between social justice – efforts to diversify sports – and environmental and climate justice, in which the most vulnerable communities face the greatest climate and health risks, but lack resources and are ill-equipped to cope. adapt to climate change.

To advance

Sports leagues and athletes have taken a stand on many social issues, but they are often reactive when implementing and promoting change.

For example, leagues only implemented regulatory policies regarding brain safety after countless tragedies. People started focusing on traumatic brain injury and chronic traumatic encephalopathy after the deaths of numerous NFL players and a hit movie.

The heat-related deaths of college football and NFL players, including Minnesota Vikings player Korey Stringer, have drawn attention to the risks. Tokyo 2020 Olympians and FIFA World Cup organizers have spoken of the need for regulatory changes due to the effects of extreme heat on the health of athletes. But it’s often only after a tragedy that improvements are made to protect young athletes from the heat.

The sports sector can make immediate practical and policy adaptations to extreme heat to protect children. These include changing training schedules, increasing the number of water breaks, revising sports heat policies to reflect climate change, and implementing procedures to ensure coach compliance and sports administrators.

Texas A&M students Ariana Taylor and Ashwin Mathew of the DeBakey Executive Research Leadership Program contributed to this article.

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