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Boy's baseball death spotlights need for tracking youth sports injuries

Published: Friday, April 20, 2012 10:39 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — Baseball is one of the safest sports for high school boys to play, according to data from the Center for Injury Research and Policy. It has had fewer injuries than football, basketball, wrestling, hockey and lacrosse, the center reported.

So what do the numbers say about injuries to children younger than high school age who participate in sports?

Nothing. A comprehensive list detailing such injuries does not exist.

"The problem is nobody is currently doing this for young athletes, and there's a huge, huge need," said Dawn Comstock, principal investigator for the center, which has been tracking high school injuries for the last seven years. "We want decisions about keeping athletes safe to be driven by data and not just emotion or anecdotal evidence."

Emotions were no doubt running high in the Chicago area in the last week after the death of Eric Lederman, a 12-year-old Oswego boy who was fatally struck in the head with a baseball while playing catch with a teammate off the field during a game in Wheaton.

The death of Eric, whose funeral was Thursday, was ruled an accident by the Cook County medical examiner. But it has haunted many parents of young athletes and sparked questions about safety and proper equipment for children in youth sports leagues.

The tragedy has prompted park district directors and youth league officials to review safety guidelines, and parents to double-check the fit of their children's protective gear. But it has also highlighted the need for a national database to track accidents in youth sports, which could be used to help recognize and minimize injuries.

"They are freak accidents, but they happen," said Bob Freitag, a Little League coach in Westmont who, over two decades, has witnessed a number of accidents. The most serious one was when a catcher had to be rushed to the emergency room after a ball "came down right on his eye."

"We should all be aware of that, and what happened is going to make us more aware," Freitag said.

When it comes to athletic injuries in the U.S., there are four places to get numbers.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association keeps detailed records on injuries for college players. Comstock's group tracks accidents for 20 sports at U.S. high schools — with details down to where athletes were positioned when they were hurt and how many days of school they missed.

Beyond those sets, the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research tracks deaths and serious injuries in high school and college sports, and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission records scant details of sports accidents reported to emergency rooms.

But there is no comprehensive list covering the injuries of the youngest athletes — from Little Leaguers to summer swim team members, researchers said.

And that, they say, presents a gap in safety.

"High schools are highly organized … for colleges, it's similarly easy to get data," said Fred Mueller, director for the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research. "But when it comes to youth sports, there isn't really much, and it's really important because nobody knows what's going on out there."

In a limited study commissioned by USA Baseball, Mueller found that between 1989 to 2010, 18 children younger than high school age died of baseball injuries, most of them when a pitcher or batter was hit in the head by a ball. High-speed balls hitting the chest — and causing cardiac arrest — were another common scenario in the deaths, he said.

Maurice Davenport, 14, of Chicago, died three years ago after he fell chest-first on a batted softball he had caught during a game. The impact created such force that it stopped his heart, family members say, although medical reports were inconclusive about the cause of his death.

The boy's great-aunt, Deborah Hatcher, who raised Maurice and his brothers, said she never imagined her nephew's fate when she learned he had been taken to a hospital.

"There's nothing like losing a child," said Hatcher, tears welling in the corners of her eyes. "I ask God why he took Maurice — he was such a good boy, and he loved to play baseball."

Baseball league officials and other groups have been pressuring manufacturers to develop metal bats that would reduce how fast balls travel when hit, making them more like wooden bats. That change is expected to be implemented soon, Mueller said.

A few years ago, a rules committee for the National Federation of State High School Associations, which governs high school sports, wanted to revise the rule regarding the point of kickoff in football. By moving the spot of kickoffs back, officials thought there would be fewer touchbacks, which would ultimately lead to more kick returns and more exciting, higher-scoring games, Comstock said.

After consulting with Comstock, however, the officials saw data that showed that injuries during kickoffs were more severe — often concussions and fractures. They decided not to change the rules.

"For years, our committees kind of dealt in guesswork or secondhand information," said Bruce Howard, spokesman for the federation. "It's been a very good additional component for our committees as they consider changes because you're dealing in realities of actual numbers."

The researchers contend that if all youth sports injuries could be monitored and tracked in this way, it would lead to safer sports for kids.

"If you have information on how the accidents happen — what kind of care the kid had, did he have a physical exam before, did he have a medical person on site — then you find out how these accidents are happening," Mueller said. "Maybe you could put a rule change in, an equipment change, something to lower these numbers."

Recognizing the void, a collection of 41 groups — from orthopedic surgeons to moms — formed the Youth Sports Safety Alliance, which began holding annual summits three years ago.

At the meetings, held in Washington, groups share research, pool resources and discuss safety issues such as concussions and equipment safety.

"It's a collaboration effect," said Brian Robinson, a member of the alliance. "The whole idea in a nutshell is to make youth and high school sports safer."

Which, in the end, is all parents can hope for.

When Donald Lippo heard the news last week that Lederman had died of a sports injury, it was sadly familiar. Lippo's son, Kyle, was 12 years old when he died of a head injury that he is believed to have suffered while playing league football.

"My son was excited to play a Saturday game under the lights on an actual high school football field that night," said Lippo, recalling how the assistant coach had waved the father down from the stands after only a couple of plays.

When Lippo reached his son, Kyle complained of a headache, then started to vomit. The boy was airlifted to Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, where he underwent surgery to relieve the pressure in his brain. But by the next morning, Kyle had died.

To this day, Lippo and his wife, Joy, still think about whether his death could have been prevented. Though some precautions — such as screening children more thoroughly for health conditions or improving equipment — may help increase safety, sometimes, the unthinkable happens as well, he said.

"They put so much money into protecting kids on the field, but is a helmet going to protect a child who has a blood vessel that is going to burst?" he said.

A year after Kyle's death, his younger twin brothers asked if they could play football. The Lippos decided the enrichment that sports add to youths' lives was important.

"We could have kept (them) in a bubble, but what kind of life is that?" he asked.

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