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Saving Lives, One Sports Injury At A Time


For 31 years, Fred Mueller has been researching how student athletes get injured, or worse. And when it happens, he's one of the first to hear about it.

FRED MUELLER: A young kid has died or is permanently paralyzed, and he's 15, 16 years old, and you never get used to that.

SULLIVAN: Mueller is the director of the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at UNC Chapel Hill. And when he talks, athletic organizations listen. Because when they implement his safety recommendations, it saves lives.

Now Mueller's on the path to retirement and he leaves behind a legacy of groundbreaking changes in athletic safety. Dr. Mueller, welcome to the program.

MUELLER: Thank you very much. Happy to be here.

SULLIVAN: What's the most common cause of death in high school athletes right now?

MUELLER: Head injury, brain injury and usually caused by the tackling or being tackled and helmet-to-helmet contact.

SULLIVAN: You're talking about football. But this is not all football related.

MUELLER: No, there are other sports involved with serious injuries also, but not as high as football. Male and female soccer have problems. Baseball had some - actually, all the sports have some type of head and neck injury.

SULLIVAN: Well, let's talk about swimming and pole vaulting because your research has brought about incredible improvements in both of those sports.

MUELLER: In 1980, when we started looking at all sports, 1982 actually, we noticed there were four pole vaulting deaths in one year. And what was happening was that the pole vaulter was either bouncing out of the landing pit or missing the landing pit completely, and it usually was a head injury. So what happened, the rules changed, and they increased the size of the landing pit. So that made a difference.

SULLIVAN: And another one of them was swimming.

MUELLER: Yes. Swimming was a problem early on. The racing dive in the early '80s, the diver would dive from the starting blocks and hit the water and start swimming right away. And then coaches were doing research and found that if they dove into the water and went deeper into the water initially, that they would get a faster start on their races. So they go deep in the water and hit their head on the bottom of the pool and that caused a lot of brain and neck injuries, paralyzing injuries, so new rules went into effect there also.

SULLIVAN: And because of that, now they dive into deeper water.

MUELLER: Or start the race in the water.

SULLIVAN: And now you have some concerns about cheerleaders.

MUELLER: Yeah. Cheerleaders have been a major problem, and I think we still have a problem there. The old days, the cheerleaders were shaking pom-poms and jumping up and down on the sideline. It changed dramatically to a gymnastics event, where they're throwing a female who is light in weight 25 or 30 feet and she's doing all kind of twists and turns in the air, and then they're supposed to catch her before she hits the ground. And in many cases, they were dropping her or missing her, and she was landing usually on a hard surface. So again, head injuries, neck injuries, couple of deaths.

SULLIVAN: What did you recommend for cheerleading?

MUELLER: I recommended treating cheerleading like a sport. So they would have to have qualified coaches, athletic trainers, good conditioning exercises and things like that.

SULLIVAN: What goes through your head when you see one of the reports of a child that's died or been seriously injured?

MUELLER: You think about that kid's family. You think about the poor coaches involved with that. And the kids with disability, you know, if they don't have insurance, medical bills are going to be gigantic, maybe half a million dollars the first year.

SULLIVAN: And then you have to pick up the phone and call them.

MUELLER: Yeah. That's the hard part.

SULLIVAN: Do you ever have people who don't want to talk to you?

MUELLER: Yeah. Not the parents but sometimes the coaches or the athletic department. They feel if they talk to you that people will look at them as being responsible for a death or a catastrophic injury. And what we try to tell those people is what we're trying to do is reduce the number of injuries that are happening and make a game safer for the participants. Now, if we can do that, we've really accomplished a big goal.

SULLIVAN: That's Fred Mueller, the long-time director of the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at UNC Chapel Hill. Thanks so much for talking with us.

MUELLER: Thank you, Laura. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.