IHSA decree: Better safe than sorry
New rule well-meaning, but will it have desired effect?
Adopting a safety-first approach is never wrong.
That’s especially so when the parties being protected are young people. Teenagers often are impervious to warning signs about potential dangers because they typically are in peak health and, as a result, gradually develop a misplaced sense of invincibility.
Individuals with more years under their belts — and the aching bodies to remind them of that fact — know such an outlook is foolhardy. Therefore, it is incumbent upon those holding positions of authority to act in youths’ best interest whenever possible.
That inevitably leads to the formation of more and more rules and guidelines, but even well-intentioned ones can provide no absolute guarantee against harm. Does that mean none should ever be implemented?
Of course not, but anything that eventually becomes either an actual law or an organizational by-law must be tempered with good judgment and not merely serve as a kneejerk reaction to what is perceived as a burgeoning problem.
In the athletic world, a great amount of attention has been focused on football in recent years, and not just because it is the No. 1 spectator sport in the U.S. Fan interest has never been higher, and at the professional and collegiate levels that translates into huge revenue streams.
One of the major selling points of football is its physicality — simply put, fans love to see hard hits. Usually forgotten is the fact that the recipients of said hits sometimes suffer serious consequences from them.
Equipment quality has improved dramatically over the years, but that’s generally been offset by the greater size and speed of today’s athletes in comparison to those of a generation ago. Thus, the risk of injury has really not been lessened.
At football’s highest level, drastic changes in the game may not be forthcoming due to the money that’s at stake. From a marketing standpoint, why mess with a good thing?
Nevertheless, NFL decision-makers are cognizant of what’s happening, in part because of lawsuits filed by former players who sustained head injuries during their careers. With concussions more easily diagnosed these days and the consequences of repeated blows to the head better known, some precautions are being taken to reduce the amount of contact in practices.
Negative long-term effects, however, can also be felt with injuries other than concussions. And as for an overall reduction of them — well, one need only look at the spate of season-ending injuries that plagued NFL teams this summer before the first preseason contest had been played to discover that not every malady results from direct contact.
Understandably, a greater emphasis on safety is being placed at the doorstep of high school and youth football teams since athletes still in various stages of physical development populate those. One trial balloon floated several months ago by an Illinois state representative suggested that the amount of contact allowed during youth football practices get reduced to one day per week.
Some neurologists have gone Rep. Carol Sente one better and recommended eliminating all contact for younger football players. A Massachusetts-based specialist quoted in a Medill News story said that the earliest age for participation in a full-contact sport should be 14.
In May, the Illinois High School Association approved changes in football practice schedules that will officially take effect in the 2014-15 school year. Acting on a joint proposal from its Sports Medicine Advisory and Football Advisory committees, the IHSA will, among other things, eliminate live tackling during summer contact days, a move being made to reduce the chances of athletes sustaining concussions or becoming victims of heat exhaustion.
Preseason practices were already revamped for the 2013 season. The first four days were limited to three hours per day, with a two-hour window of rest in a cooler environment breaking up the session.
Practice hours were able to be extended to five during the second week, but not without that same two-hour break in between and then only for a total of three days. Five-hour practices could not be held on back-to-back days.
“Coaches had to adapt,” Shepard coach Dominic Passolano said, “and they did.”
Passolano said his standard practices even before the new directive only lasted about 2 ¼ hours, largely because he felt anything beyond that was not really beneficial.
“No coach in his right mind is going to grind his guys down,” Passolano said.
St. Laurence coach Harold Blackmon also chooses to “exercise on the side of being conservative when it comes to player health and safety.” However, having played major college football at Northwestern University and then for a short time in the NFL, Blackmon has a unique perspective on the sport.
“I played this game and I love this game,” he said. “[But] with all the restrictions they’re putting in, that could lead to more injuries.”
How could fewer minutes spent on the field lead to a greater number of injuries? It has to do with degrees of preparation.
“It’s a physical game, so we focus on the technique [of playing it],” Brother Rice coach Brian Badke said. “One of the things I’m concerned about is we’re going to have less time to prepare kids physically and mentally.”
He’s not alone in holding that opinion.
“There’s freak accidents,” Oak Lawn coach Sean Lucas said. “But the more repetition you can get in teaching kids the proper way to do things, the better off you are.”
While Lucas is completely on board with the idea of promoting safety, he wished all football coaches had been asked for a greater amount of input earlier on in the rulemaking process.
“We’re not professional coaches, but we are professional educators,” he said. “You can’t dictate or legislate injuries out of sports — you have to educate. If there’s an issue, bring it to our attention, as has [since] been done, and we’ll educate ourselves on how to best deal with it.”
“I’m all for coaching training,” Blackmon said. “Maybe [the IHSA] should be doing random walkups to make sure coaches are doing what they’re supposed to do.”
Blackmon said a tackling circuit is a daily part of St. Laurence’s practice routine, and if he or any of his assistants sees anyone “putting his head down, we take him out.”
“You have to see what you’re doing,” Blackmon said, referring to would-be tacklers. “Practices are in a much better place these days. We always focus on the tackling and hitting, and we are more health-conscious and technique-driven.”
Richards coach Tony Sheehan follows the same guidelines, in part because each year he inherits at least a few youngsters who aren’t only new to the Bulldogs’ program, but to the sport itself. Because of that, Sheehan shares Badke’s apprehension regarding any reduction in practice times.
“When you play, you [have to] know what you’re getting into,” Sheehan said. “You just need to be prepared and teach the proper fundamentals, and the only concern I have is they’re losing time on learning the proper techniques on how to tackle.”
a positive one?
There may be a temptation in some circles to label as overreaction a few of the changes being implemented. However, no one wants to be guilty of a misstep.
Passolano admitted things are “in a very sensitive wave right now” and Sheehan called the topic of concussions “a little bit of a hot potato,” but the latter quickly added that “in today’s society, you can’t take chances.”
And it’s always advisable to be proactive rather than reactive. Lucas noted that after former Mt. Carmel player Kevin Dowling died from heat exhaustion back in 1995, there was an almost immediate shift in how high school practices everywhere in Illinois were conducted.
Lucas and Passolano were teammates at Providence Catholic during that same time period, and Lucas recalled the increased number of water breaks that were given following the Dowling incident. The same held true at other schools.
“It’s unfortunate tragic events like that are needed to create change,” he said. “I don’t want to say it was a test of courage [before that], but it seemed like it. Every day, we went in full pads.
“I’m 35, and if a 40-year-old is standing next to me, he’s going to say things were tougher for him. There’s been progression in how you teach and there’s a lot more attention paid now to safety issues.”
“The days of beating the [heck] out of each other are gone,” Badke said.
Chicago Christian coach Jim Bolhuis has spent many years in football and says teams “are much more creative in how they prepare. I’m much quicker to take the equipment off [than I once was].”
He has also made adjustments as to how some basics are taught.
“We’re trying to keep their heads out of tackling and blocking [completely],” Bolhuis said. “What I’ve seen some coaches do is almost like boxing techniques, [where players are] using their hands more. And I don’t think that’s a bad idea.”
Bolhuis, who stated he’d like to see officials do their part as well by cracking down harder on helmet-to-helmet hits during games, doesn’t only approach things from a coaching standpoint. He looks at them through a parent’s eyes, too, as his son, Christian, is the Knights’ quarterback.
“As a parent, you can’t ignore what’s happened [regarding serious injuries],” Coach Bolhuis said. “It’s definitely a concern, but my approach is getting kids in the best possible condition.”
And that brings the argument back around to the reduced practice times the IHSA has mandated. In Badke’s view, one way to try to deal effectively with it will be by making sure instruction doesn’t end once everyone moves indoors.
“Back in the day, there was teaching going on out on the field,” he said. “Now, there’s more teaching in the classroom. We kind of practice that way anyway.”
Passolano thinks teaching opportunities can also be maximized by adjusting the time when the 25 summer-contact days take place.
“I’m big with multiple sports, but we’re putting kids in positions where they have to decide between one or the other,” he said. “They should allow June to be for baseball and basketball and make July for football. That way there’s time [for coaches] to be going through the proper steps on how to tackle and where your head has to be placed.”
But until such a scheduling change occurs, football coaches will just cope with the new rules. Or at least the majority of them will.
“People who cheat, you’re not going to stop them,” Lucas said. “But I’m glad the legislation came from the IHSA in conjunction with the [Illinois High School Football Coaches Association] instead of a state rep.
“Football’s the best sport there is and the most complete team sport — it’s not like basketball, where a Lebron James can almost win a title single-handedly — but safety’s the most important thing. In the mid-to-late ‘90s, hydration was the big thing, but they’re all valid issues.”
“You want kids to stay healthy,” Badke said, “and have a fun experience.”