The death of a boy killed in New York after a soccer goal fell on top of him last month is renewing the call for tougher safety regulations.
Though the number of kids killed each year is small, advocates tell the NBC Boston Investigators these are not freak accidents, but rather tragedies that could have been prevented.
Sitting in her suburban Virginia home Mary Ellias described her son Hayden.
“He was, well, I guess he really still is, the sunshine of our lives,” she said tearfully.
The 10-year-old was killed playing goalie on a high school field in Virginia. The portable goal wasn’t anchored down and somehow tipped over, crushing his skull.
Hayden is one of 42 people, mostly kids, reported killed in the U.S. and Canada since 1979 by falling goals that can weigh as much as 400 pounds. Hundreds more are hurt each year, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
“You say to yourself, that could have been prevented. That could have been prevented,” says Mike Borislow of the Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association.
Borislow pulled on a goal, lifting the back end. “If I can do that, it means a strong child can do that,” he said.
The goals can be hard to pull down, especially the larger goals and the newer ones with a weighted back bar, but all of them are capable of tipping over. Uneven ground, strong winds, players dangling from the crossbar during games or practice can bring goals down. Or when they are left out at schools and playgrounds where kids can horse around on the unattended goals.
Three kids have died in the last six months alone and a school in California just settled a 10 million dollar lawsuit after a student’s skull was fractured by the unanchored goal on which he was playing. Borislow warns, “No chin ups, no hanging on here. It’s a goal it’s not a toy.”
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Mass Youth Soccer tells their coaches to adhere to manufacturers’ warning labels. Anchor all goals with sandbags, stakes, or augers. Referees are required to make sure goals won’t tip before games can start and they say coaches, and even parents, should be checking as well. “They should be holding their coaches accountable for the safety of their children,” said Borislow.
Goals should also be put away when they’re not being used, chained to a fence or two goals chained to each other. But we checked more than a dozen communities from Littleton to Randolph to Needham to Boston to Stoughton and found unanchored, improperly stored goals nearly everywhere we went.
“We need to educate parents, we need to educate coaches, we need to educate children,” Borislow said.
Most states, including Massachusetts, don’t have laws around goal safety. Just three states do. Illinois bans the sale of goals that are not tip resistant. Wisconsin and Arkansas require that goals be anchored down, among other regulations. Hayden’s father, Greg, said, “We’re disgusted that it’s still happening.”
The Ellias family says goal training for anyone tied to youth soccer should be legally required. Every death since Hayden is a knife through the heart. “I’ll always know the ones I didn’t save,” said Mary Ellias. "I’ll never know the ones I did."
Hayden’s cousin moved to Massachusetts and has just started conversations with legislators here.
We reached out to several of the communities where we found unanchored or improperly stored goals. Not everyone got back to us, but volunteer Mark Hollinger with Littleton Youth Soccer called goal safety an important concern and they wrestle with the practicalities of chaining goals to each other like moving them at all, how to mow around goals, and concerns that children would see two goals chained together as a fort, an attractive nuisance. Hollinger also said they issue augers to all of their coaches for both games and practices.
Ed Olsen of the town of Needham said, “Parks and Forestry maintains all the athletic fields in town, but as far as equipment on fields, that is the user groups equipment. The town nets everything and puts sandbags on at the start of the season and after that it becomes property of the club.”
The Boston Parks and Recreation Department told us that at multipurpose fields, goals are anchored by the permit holders during games and practices. They are checked by referees. After the games, the goals are usually moved to the side and chained up in the park by the permit holder so the field returns to a multi-purpose field. The goals at Harambe Park in Dorchester were not anchored or chained. The agency says it will contact their permit holders to make sure they are continuing to follow this policy.
We did find goals properly anchored and stored at Mass Youth Soccer, West Roxbury’s Millenium field, Brockton Youth Soccer’s field at the V-A, Lincoln-Sudbury High School and Dedham’s Fairbanks park.