Many parents assume that proper equipment is the key to safety, but experts caution against becoming complacent. "Young athletes need gear that is sized and fitted correctly and in good repair," says Comstock, but that's a tall order with growing kids. "What fits one season won't fit the next," Dr. LaBella says. There's also a new controversy over whether helmets do more harm than good. Some critics say kids actually play rougher when wearing helmets or heavy gear because they think they're better protected.
Still, research shows that wearing equipment generally reduces the risk of injuries. Schools can use old helmets if they have them, but they should send them off-site annually for reconditioning, says Brian Robinson, chair of the Secondary School Committee at the National Athletic Trainers' Association. Unfortunately, up to half a million young players use hand-me-down helmets that haven't been properly updated within two years, according to a recent New York Times investigation. Even worse, it was discovered that re-conditioning companies sometimes fail to follow proper testing procedures and return defective helmets to youth teams. "Schools are at the mercy of these companies," says Robinson, who is also head athletic trainer at Glenbrook South High School in Glenview, Illinois. The helmets Glenbrook receives appear to be in good shape, he says, but no one can be sure just by looking.
There's also the glam and glory factor to consider. Some parents encourage their kids to excel at a sport in the hope that they'll nab college scholarships or go pro. The fact that less than 1% of high school players make it to the professional level doesn't prevent kids from being "dazzled by what they see in pro and college sports—not only the admiration and money and how their heroes train and play," Dr. LaBella says, but also their bone-crunching hits. Even the enormous amount of attention devoted to pro athletes with brain injuries—most recently a hockey player—can further glamorize a life in the limelight. And with a nonstop stream of games being shown on multiple sports-only cable stations, the lure of fame trickles down to kids. ESPN broadcasts the Little League World Series live, for example, and colleges that want first dibs on outstanding talent woo players as early as middle school. "All of this pressures kids to train harder at younger ages," Dr. LaBella says.
Ultimately, the one indisputable factor contributing to the increase in injuries is the large number of kids who are now heading for the field. "More than half of all high school students play sports," says Comstock. And while that's good news overall—fighting obesity, building self-esteem, encouraging fitness and teaching teamwork are just a few of the benefits of organized sports—parents, coaches and players need to champion safety as they cheer from the sidelines.