Archive for September, 2014

SPORT SAFETY: Early Morning Practices/Games Can Bring Unforeseen Dangers

 

Early-Morning Practices and Games Raise Safety Questions

By Doug Abrams

 

Earlier this month, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reaffirmed that “chronic sleep loss and associated sleepiness are a serious threat to the academic success, health, and safety of our nation’s youth.” The Academy’s new report comes four years after the American Medical Association identified “adolescent insufficient sleep and sleepiness as a public health issue,” and advocated “education about sleep health as a standard component of care for adolescent patients.”

This month’s AAP report advances several causes for the “epidemic” of teen sleep insufficiency, including causes that relate to teens’ lifestyles and non-athletic pursuits. But a prime cause is early school start times (before 8:30 am). “A substantial body of research has now demonstrated that delaying school start times is an effective countermeasure to chronic sleep loss and has a wide range of potential benefits to students with regard to physical and mental health, safety, and academic achievement.”

Questions and Answers

I am not a physician, and I do not conduct medical research. Without further evidence from medical professionals, we should not reflexively apply emerging sleep-deprivation studies to school-affiliated and private youth sports programs. By emphasizing early school start times as a prime cause of juvenile sleep deprivation, however, these studies deserve notice from sports programs that regularly conduct early-morning weekday practice sessions or early-morning weekend games.

Sports programs need not await further research before contemplating the relationship between sleep and the increasingly demanding schedules that so many athletes maintain in school and community-based sports. Day in and day out, adults make decisions about children’s physical and emotional safety based on common sense and intuition, without consulting published research.

Decisions about the role of early-morning practices and games may be more complicated than the decisions initially appear. One the one hand, for example, schools and private sports associations frequently see little choice but to schedule early-morning events because everyone cannot play at prime time in crowded local ice rinks, basketball courts, swimming pools, and similar facilities. Adults also often say that their own youthful early-morning workout regimens taught dedication, commitment and self-discipline that lasted into adulthood. On the other hand, research suggests that before-school practice sessions (which typically begin an hour or more before the opening bell) can compromise academic performance and encourage absenteeism.

Finally, safety risks lurk when, depending on the mandates of the state’s graduated drivers’ licensing law, parents permit older players to drive themselves to early-morning sessions. Sleepiness, inexperience behind the wheel, darkness, and variable weather conditions provide an unhealthy combination.

Immediate Measures

At the least, emerging medical research about juvenile sleep deprivation should prod league administrators, parents and coaches to consider the wisdom of several safety measures, including these:

  • Avoiding early-morning practices and games where practicable in light of public demands on available sports facilities at school or elsewhere in the community.
  • In youth sports associations, allocating the burdens of early-morning practice and game slots among several teams where possible. I have known administrators who routinely schedule the youngest teams at the earliest weekend hours. A few administrators have told me that they resort to such unbalanced scheduling because teens and their parents might balk at playing so early. These administrators often wonder why the youngest players sometimes re-enroll at rates lower than expected the following year. Connect the dots.
  • Monitoring the school performance, attendance and overall health of team members who participate regularly in early-morning sports events.

Driving

One sleep-related safety measure should not wait further study. Regardless of what the state’s graduated drivers’ licensing law permits, teams should require that older players be driven to early-morning practices and games by their parents, a teammate’s parent, or other responsible adult. Much of the year, early-morning driving may mean traveling in darkness; in much of the nation, it may also mean traveling on icy, slick roads during the winter months. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that “adolescents are at particularly high risk of driving while impaired by sleepiness, and young drivers aged 25 years or younger are involved in more than one-half of the estimated 100,000 police-reported, fatigue-related traffic crashes each year.”

Priority One

Prudent measures to enhance player safety and well-being should remain first priority for youth sports parents, coaches and administrators. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association have given the adults cause to weigh a public health concern previously off the radar screens of most youth sports programs.

 

[Sources: Policy Statement, School Start Times for Adolescents, Pediatrics, vol. 134, p. 642 (Aug. 2014); Technical Report, Insufficient Sleep in Adolescents and Young Adults: An Update on Causes and Consequences, Pediatrics, vol. 134, p. 921 (Sept. 2014); American Medical Association, Resolution 503: Insufficient Sleep in Adolescents (2010); Technical Report, Excessive Sleepiness in Adolescents and Young Adults: Causes, Consequences, and Treatment Strategies, Pediatrics, vol. 115, p. 1774 (2005)]

TRENDS IN SPORTS: Is HS Football Quietly Going out of Business?

The numbers tell the story about HS football in this country – and you can’t believe the decline is due just because of the recent concerns about concussions.

Reports from all over are saying very similar things:

> In Ohio, traditionally a hot bed for HS football, the number of kids playing the sport there have dropped from 55,000 to 45,000 from 2008.

Coaches there are saying that HS programs that routinely had 90 players trying out are now done to less than 50.

> In Michigan, HS football enrollment drops every year. It’s now down to 41,000 kids – the smallest turnout since 1995.

> USA Football reports that youth and HS football numbers have dropped nationwide from 3.2 million to 2.6 million since 2007.

I asked callers this AM if they have seen a similar situation where they live, and a number of local HS coaches called right away, saying that yes, there are fewer players each year. Among the reasons why:

> Kids just don’t want to put the time and effort into playing HS football. All sports involve a lot of work, but with football, even though the games are in the fall, most HS programs request (demand) that the kid put in year-round work in the weight room, running sprints, watching video, etc. In other words, it’s a year-round kind of commitment.

> Coaches say that more kids than ever just don’t feel it’s big a deal to boast that you’re on the HS varsity football team – that it’s not as big a deal as it used to be. And for high schools which have weak football programs, it’s even less of an attraction for a kid to decide to make all the effort to play football, only to end up on a team which barely wins a game or two each year.

> Plus kids today now specialize in just one sport by the time they’re in HS. And if they feel that other sport that MIGHT give them a chance to progress to the collegiate level, they’re not going to take a chance on playing football where serious injury is always a possibility. Or, for that matter, many travel sports now play all-year round, so there’s no real motivation (or time) to play HS football.

> Then there’s the economic factor. Some kids just feel that they would rather spend their evenings and weekends getting a job so they can earn some cash rather than putting in hours to play football.

> And of course, there’s what I call the “reality” factor. That is, kids today have SO many choices with their time and energy that by the time they reach 12 or 13, they realize that they might be someday good enough to play on the HS football team, but clearly they are not on the fast track to become the star QB or running back. As such, why go through all the work and sacrifice just to be another player on the team? To these kids, that’s the “reality” of the situation.

You can argue with them, and tell them that they can only play HS football at this time in their lives, and that playing the sport is a lot of fun.

> But for kids today, neither one of those counterarguments seems to have much impact. They already know that very few kids ever get football scholarships to college, and they discount just how much fun it is to go through hard-nosed football practices each week, knowing that they might not get much out of the experience except some memories.

> Remember, HS football numbers were dropping BEFORE the concussion concerns cropped up. Take all the reasons outlined above, add in the fact that even the NFL now says that a full one-third of all of its players can expect to experience some form of dementia from football concussions, and you can see why this sport has some serious issues.

PS  – Please bear in mind that I loved playing HS football when I was a kid, and even played freshman football in college before just opting for a career in baseball. And chances are that the current HS football numbers will stabilize soon. But still, there comes a point where football enthusiasts have to wonder when this is going to stop.

TRAVEL TEAMS: The End of HS Sports Is Upon Us….

For years I’ve been preaching about the approaching end of traditional high school varsity sports, and I really do think “the end is near.”

Who to blame? The lure and seduction of travel teams.

It’s happening right now as US Soccer Academy and other travel soccer programs all over the country are telling promising soccer players, “Look, if you play for our program, you will play against much better competition, receive much better coaching, and best of all, you will be exposed to top college coaches — coaches who are looking to recruit top players just like you.

For a kid who’s 13 or 14 or 15 or 16, this seems the perfect and natural way to achieve a life-time goal: get a college scholarship for soccer by playing in a top travel program.

Of course, these travel programs come with a price – anywhere between $5,000-$12,000 a year. And of course, there are never any guarantees about actually getting a college scholarship. Bear in mind that since soccer is still a non-revenue producing sport in college, very few colleges offer full scholarships – perhaps one can get a few thousand dollars in aid if they’re lucky.

And playing for US Soccer Academy or other related travel teams also means you CAN NOT play any more for your HS team. You are basically walking away from your HS varsity career, and in some cases, you’re also not allowed to play any other sports for your HS in the winter or spring seasons. You are locked in to playing just  travel soccer.

It seems like a lot to sacrifice, especially not knowing what the future might bring.

And yet, parents are eager to have their youngster sign up.

Matt Allen, the highly-successful boys’ soccer coach at Byram Hills HS, was on my show today, and he was lamenting this extraordinary turn of events. Just a few years ago, Allen’s team won the NYS championship. Yet this year, he has already lost 7 players to US Soccer and other travel squads. Allen is disheartened, as are his coaching colleagues, but the truth is, there’s not much they can do.

When pressed, Coach Allen knows that if this trend continues, his vaunted HS varsity team will basically be nothing more than a recreational program in just a few years. And he also knows this is happening not just here, but all over the country, including Texas, California, and other states.

The irony is that the very best HS players – the cream of the crop – don’t opt for US Soccer Academy. Why? Because these kids are so elite that they have already been discovered by college coaches and have been offered scholarships. Hence, the youngster doesn’t feel any motivation to play for a travel team. Instead, he plays for his HS varsity.

But all the other kids – the kids who are really, really good but not superstars – those are the ones who flock to the travel programs.

By the way, mind you that travel teams are for-profit operations. They are doing this to make money. And they do.

Nobody knows yet what will  happen if a HS player walks away from his varsity team and goes to a travel team, and then changes his mind if he’s not getting enough playing time or doesn’t like the coach or his teammates. That’s yet to be seen.

But in a generation when being on a travel team carries the allure of maybe getting a college scholarship, even a small one, kids and parents can’t wait to join up with checkbook in hand. To them, this represents the final step in making their soccer career a total success.

Soccer is the first sport where travel teams are decimating HS teams, but clearly the other major HS sports are sure to follow soon.

It’s apparently what the current generation of young athletes and their parents want.

LEGAL CONCERNS: HS Basketball Player Tweets About Lack of Playing Time, Gets Cut, and Files Lawsuit

There was a lawsuit filed last week in Ohio that in so many ways has come to symbolize where we are these days in terms of HS sports in this country…

In short – a former HS basketball player sued his varsity coaches, AD, principal, and the school district because he was cut from his team.

And why was he cut? Because among other things, he had tweeted that he wasn’t getting enough playing time in the games. And when the coaches got wind about his complaining tweets, he was dismissed from the team.

As you might imagine, his coaches simply said he wasn’t better than the other players, and that his tweets of complaining were the last straw.  Apparently, the kid had a history of complaining about his lack of playing time, and he took exception. But the youngster took it one step further – he sued.

The youngster and his family found a lawyer who filed suit and says that the boy should have never been cut due to his tweeting –  that his tweeting of his opinions was within his First Amendment right of free speech, and he had every right to express his displeasure.

It’s an interesting case.

Once again, the issue of social media has intruded upon traditional sports issues. Is it a violation of a youngster’s right of freedom of speech to give public air to his gripings? After all, benchwarmers often complain to their friends and family about a lack of playing time, and most coaches understand that. But is it different when those complaints are put out in a public form like twitter?

Or shouldn’t athletes today realize that being on a HS or college team is not a right, but a privilege – and that privilege brings certain protocols and expectations, such as not publicly complaining about the coach or one’s lack of time in the games?

Most coaches usually tell their players at the first practice of the season to stay away from social media at all costs – that it can be a loaded gun in the hands of teenagers. It’s well documented that some top HS football players have lost athletic scholarships when their future college coaches have read their postings on twitter or Facebook. It’s almost as though these football players didn’t realize the impact their comments can have.

And perhaps the same logic applies here. Did this young man – Chase Johanson of Medina, OH – not realize that it’s one thing to gripe in a private conversation to one’s friends, and something entirely different to post one’s complaints into  public cyberspace?

Johanson has since graduated from Medina HS and is now enrolled at UNC Wilmington where he’s not on the basketball team, but does participate on the track-and-field team. You have to wonder whether, at any point in his HS athletic career, he was ever warned by either his coaches or his parents about the dangers of social media. Or maybe he was just so fed up with no playing time that he didn’t care anymore about being on the basketball team. I have to assume he must have realized there would be consequences from his tweets.

Regardless, the lawsuit has been filed, and he’s looking for close to $100,000 in damages. It will be fascinating to see how this lawsuit is resolved.

LEGAL CONCERNS: Allowing Retired Coaches to Continue on the Job – Common Sense Wins the Day

Sensible New Jersey Law Permits Retired Coaches to Continue Coaching

By Doug Abrams

 

On July 30, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed a bill that, effective immediately, permits interscholastic teacher-coaches to continue coaching without interruption when they retire as teachers. For continuing to accept their coaching stipends, the coaches would not lose benefits that they have otherwise earned under the state’s teacher retirement pension system.

The bill, introduced on June 5, passed the state Assembly 71-7 less than two weeks later and 39-0 in the Senate before the end of the month. Perhaps the bill moved on a “fast track” because the exception it creates makes good sense.

Existing law enabled retiring teachers, including teacher-coaches, to return to school district employ only after a “bona fide severance” for 180 days, a period that would effectively terminate fall-sports coaches who would like to continue coaching without risking loss of their pension benefits. By the time the 180-day period ran, the new coach would already be in place.

The existing “bona fide severance” period is designed to prevent double-dipping by teachers who might otherwise retire, begin receiving their pensions, and then seek to have the district rehire them immediately in the same or similar salaried position. Pension-plus-salary schemes can be common in public employment unless legislation protects taxpayers.

Taxpayers did not need protection from interscholastic coaches, however, because the new amendment contains several commonsense provisos. A retiring teacher may continue coaching without 180-day severance only with the school district in which he or she was coaching before retirement.  The retiree’s coaching stipend must be less than $10,000 per year, a modest amount in light of the sometimes year-round demands placed on interscholastic coaches these days. In most cases, the retiree coach must be at least 60 years old. The new law’s exception becomes effective only if it does not cause the state pension fund to lose its qualified status under federal law. Moreover, the coaching stipend is not “pensionable,” that is, it does not increase the base pay of an employee or retiree, and thus does not increase a retiree’s pension. Nor does the new law guarantee coaches job security; a school district retains authority to terminate, or decline to retain, the coach on any ground that would otherwise support the coach’s termination or non-retention.

“We Do It For Love of the Game”

Legislatures often pass laws that later need amendment in light of experience. Years ago, the New Jersey legislature restricted double-dipping by retired teachers, and so have some other states concerning teachers and a variety of other public sector employees. Experience has demonstrated, however, the unreasonableness of casting away seasoned coaches who receive a modest, non-pensionable stipend for mentoring student-athletes in districts that wish the coach-player relationship to continue.

Tim Gushue, veteran high school football coach and past president of the New Jersey Football Coaches Association, told USA Today that the existing pension law resulted because “people [were] taking advantage of the pension system.” But the new amendment makes sense, he said, because coaching does not invite abuse. “The money we receive [as coaches] is non-pensionable, so it doesn’t impact the pension system any way. We are not coaching for the money. We do it for the love of the game, trying to develop young people and make them better students and members of their community by teaching” life lessons through sports.

The new law’s real winners here not only the coaches who wish to pursue their love of the game, but also the young men and women they serve.  The new amendment, reproduced below, provides a model worth considering in other states.

 

[Source: Greg Tufaro, Bill Would Alter How Retiring Teachers Keep Coach Jobs, USA TODAY High School Sports, May 22, 2014; A3346, http://legiscan.com/NJ/bill/A3346/2014]

 

Appendix

“A former member of the [teachers’] retirement system who has been granted a retirement allowance, for any cause other than disability, may become employed again with the former employer in a position as a coach of an athletics activity if: (1) the employment commences after the retirement allowance becomes due and payable; (2) the former member had attained the service retirement age, applicable to that member, as of the date of retirement; and (3) the compensation for the employment is less than $10,000 per year.  This subsection shall be effective if the qualified status of the retirement system under federal law can be maintained upon its application, and such modifications to the system as may be available shall be made to allow for its application.  As used in this section, ‘former employer’ means the employer with which the former member held employment immediately prior to retirement.”

[P.L.2014, CHAPTER 21]

 

ABUSIVE COACHES: A New Trend is Developing in Holding Coaches Accountable

Ever since the debacle of the Rutgers men’s basketball program a few years ago and the dismissal of Mike Rice for verbally and physically abusing his players, something new has evolved.

And it’s a good trend.

Coaches at all levels are now coming under more scrutiny than ever before.

There was a time in this country not long ago where coaches used to have supreme power when it came to running their programs, and they were given tremendous leeway by their athletic director to run their programs. In effect, so long as the coach put forth winning teams, the AD would look the other way.

But apparently that’s happening less and less.

Here are a couple of examples that didn’t make major headlines, but certainly caught my eye:

o A former female basketball player at Holy Cross was so outraged that the long-time coach Bill Gibbons would strike her hard enough on the back to cause pain, and would also verbally abuse her in an effort to motivate her that she sued him and the college.

Despite the fact that Coach Gibbons has been on staff there for three decades and that he’s the winningest coach in the program’s history, an out-of-court settlement was reached between the woman and the school.

In sum, this woman had the courage to stand out to outdated coaching methods, and filed suit. It really doesn’t make any difference how much she was awarded in the settlement – that’s not the point. What counts is that this kind of legal action must have sent a real warning to all the other coaches at Holy Cross and in other intercollegiate programs.

o And at Temple University in Philadelphia,Eric Mobley, who had served as the college’s track-and-field coach for six years, was let go after accusations of mistreatment of track-and-field and cross-country athletes came to light.

Temple would not go into detail as to why this dismissal was occurring, but in the school newspaper, The Temple News, a number of disturbing allegations were made. Clearly the school administration figures it would make a lot more sense to simply dismiss Mobley than to try and defend him and his program.

Of course, these are just relatively small coaching decisions in the universe of college athletics today. But they at least point to the growing trend that colleges are now paying more attention to trying to weed out those coaches who overstep their boundaries when it comes to working with young athletes.

We all have known coaches who seem to use their status to become bullies with their players. They somehow feel that being in charge has imbued them with powers that make them untouchable or unaccountable for their actions. For an athlete who finds him or herself  as the victim in such a situation, there are usually three options: say nothing and put up with it, transfer to another school, or just quit the team.

None of those options are good ones. But yet, for generations, too many college athletes (and high school athletes) have put with this nonsense.

I’m heartened to see today’s athletes and journalists question these coaching methods. As noted, this is a good trend. Being named head coach doesn’t give you a license to torment and push around the players on your team.