Michigan Announces New Football Practice Session Policies
By Doug Abrams
Last week, the Michigan High School Athletic Association, the state’s governing body for interscholastic sports, announced new policies that limit helmet-to-helmet contact in football practice sessions during the preseason and the regular season. Michigan’s new policies (proposed by a Football Task Force comprised of coaches, administrators and MHSAA staff) are the latest initiative in nationwide efforts to reduce concussions and other traumatic brain injuries in football and other sports. This column discusses the major sources of these initiatives.
Sources of Regulation
Four of these sources exercise direct public authority, though distribution of that authority differs somewhat from state to state. In the typical state, youth sports safety measures may be mandated by the state legislature; the state education department; the state high school activities association; and local decision makers such as city councils, school districts, and parks and recreation departments.
Even without direct official action, coaches and parents on individual teams may implement safety measures that maintain the team’s competitiveness and preserve the essential character of the game.
The State Legislature
At the top of the official hierarchy sits the state legislature. Since 2009, all fifty states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws to improve prevention and treatment of concussions in youth sports. Most of these laws govern only interscholastic competition, but some states extend regulation to private youth sports organizations.
Most of the state concussions laws enact three core mandates. First, leagues and teams must provide parents, coaches, administrators, and players with pre-season information and education about the dangers of concussions, how to recognize their symptoms, and how to help promote healthy recovery. Second, coaches must immediately remove from a practice session or game a player who is suspected to have suffered a concussion. Third, the player may not return to action until a physician or other licensed medical professional clears the player and affirms that return is medically appropriate.
State legislatures often act incrementally, addressing one aspect of a problem that seems most pressing, before weighing later amendments in light of experience. Several states have already amended their relatively new youth sports concussions laws to create regulation stricter than the three core mandates. My August 5 column discussed amendments that California enacted last month (“California Limits Full-Contact Football Practice Sessions”).
The State Education Department and the State Activities Association
In the typical state, official statewide regulation of interscholastic sports is not limited to the legislature. Because interscholastic sports are offered in the nation’s schools, the state education department may establish rules and regulations governing athletic competition. So too may the state high school athletic association, which is typically comprised of most or all public and private schools that compete in football and other interscholastic sports.
As last week’s Michigan policymaking demonstrates, the state association (or the state education department) may establish safety regulations binding on member schools. Indeed, several state associations have already announced concussion safety regulations, which apply only to interscholastic sports, and not to competitions conducted by private youth sports organizations.
Local government agencies hold the so-called “power of the permit,” the legal authority to set terms under which private applicants may use public property, including public athletic facilities (fields, gymnasiums and the like). Most of these facilities are administered by two local agencies, the public school district and the parks and recreation department.
The school district, of course, may establish terms governing use of its facilities for interscholastic play. The power of the permit, however, also reaches use by private youth sports organizations such as Pop Warner and other youth football programs.
Most private youth sports organizations do not own facilities, but rather use public facilities pursuant to renewable agreements with local authorities. The power of the permit means that when a private youth sports organization applies to use a field, gymnasium or other public facility for the first time, the local agency may condition grant or denial on adherence to concussions protocols and other specified safety measures. The local decision maker may then determine future renewal or non-renewal based on the applicant’s prior performance.
The power of the permit hit the headlines on May 10, when the Vineland (N.J.) Daily Journal ran a story under the headline, “Midget Football May Be Banned.” The Vineland City Council said that the Vineland Midget Football League, which enrolls players between five and fourteen, reported only two of at least eight players who suffered concussions the prior season. The private league also allegedly issued some older players helmets that were designed and recommended for younger, smaller and lighter players. The city council threatened to close the fields to the midget football league because, according to the council’s vice president, “nobody followed any protocols” about concussions the prior season.
At a city council meeting, the council’s vice president said that unless the league commits itself to greater adherence to safety protocols, “we can suspend the league by telling them they can’t use” public fields.
Coaches and Parents
When the California legislature and the Michigan High School Athletic Association considered tightening concussions protocols, observers predicted that the protocols would likely not generate much controversy because they reflected precautions that most football coaches were already taking anyway.
“There’s really not a big uproar about this,” said a California Interscholastic Federation senior director, “because it really is nothing new for our coaches.” The MHSAA’s executive director said that in his state, “roughly 85 percent of coaches are already doing similar things”; the new policies were “for the 15 percent that weren’t doing it just yet. We wanted to get everyone on the same page.”
A little common sense can go a long way, though official mandates remain useful to offer players universal protection, and to assure that no team suffers a competitive disadvantage for putting its players’ safety and health first.
[Sources: Michigan High School Athletic Association, New Football Practice Policies Promote Safety as 14-15 Sports Year Begins (press release), Aug. 7, 2014, http://www.mhsaa.com/news/pressreleases/articletype/articleview/articleid/3093/new-football-practice-policies-promote-safety-as-14-15-sports-year-begins.aspx; California Law Restricts Full-Contact Youth Football Practices, http://sacramento.cbslocal.com/2014/07/21/california-law-restricts-full-contact-youth-football-practices/ (July 21, 2014); Mike Moore, MHSAA Alters Rules for Football Practice With Aim At Player Safety, Advertiser Times (Warren, Mich.), Aug. 6, 2014]