Two Steps Forward, One Step Back:
Michigan’s New Guidelines on Full-Contact High School Football Practices
By Doug Abrams
In an article by Ted Roelofs last week, Bridge Magazine reported about the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s new concussions guidelines concerning the permissible length of football teams’ full-contact drills. The new MHSAA guidelines maximum is 90 minutes per week.
The problem, noted by Mr. Roelofs, is that the guidelines are just that – guidelines. That is, they are voluntary. Remaining in place is the mandatory state rule, which sets a maximum of six hours of full-contact drills per week (an average of more than one hour a day in any week when a team practices daily before Friday night).
The article reports that Michigan remains out-of-step with several other states that mandate 90-minute weekly maximums, and even with a few states that mandate lower weekly maximums. These other states have reputations as high school football hotbeds, but their statewide activities associations doubtlessly recognize that adolescent concussions, and even repeated sub-concussive head hits, can leave student-athletes with irreversible short-term and long-term damage. Last year, a study published in JAMA [Journal of the American Medical Association] Pediatrics found that repetitive head trauma occurs more often in youth football practice sessions than in games.
A MHSAA spokesperson told Mr. Roelofs that he does not foresee problems with the new guidelines because, he says, coaches understand the risks of head trauma and no Michigan high school comes close to conducting six hours of weekly full-contact drills. Writing in USA TODAY, however, Ben Rohrbach asks the obvious question: “When the Michigan High School Athletic Association recommends 90 minutes of full-contact football practice per week, but doesn’t actually restrict coaches from using all six allotted hours of full-contact drills in a week, you can’t help but wonder if teams will actually take their governing body’s suggestion seriously.”
In my years of coaching, I never met a coach who ever wanted to see any of his players suffer injury or ill health. But voluntary full-contact guidelines nonetheless leave the door ajar for coaches who might feel tempted to exceed them. A coach, for example, might feel frustrated during a losing streak, or overzealous in the days before a big game or the playoffs. When word gets around that one or more teams have exceeded the 90-minute guideline, the temptation for other teams also to inch toward excess might not be far behind.
Strength From the Top
In interscholastic sports and youth leagues alike, strength and wisdom must begin at the top, and not at the middle or bottom. In the absence of state legislative action, the “top” here is MHSAA, which could level the playing field with a weekly full-contact maximum of 90 minutes or less, mandatory for all school districts and all football teams in the state.
Player safety should not depend on self-restraint by individual local school boards, principals, athletic directors, or coaches. Nor should player safety depend on individual parents who demand more protective concussion standards for their own children. In a high profile sport such as high school football, taking an individual stand risks arousing the sort of local criticism that can make silence seem the easier path.
Ongoing medical research informs us that the stakes for young athletes are simply too high to forego meaningful safety measures that maintain the essential character of the game. The MomsTEAM Institute of Youth Sports Safety, for example, maintains a web-based Youth Sports Concussion Safety Center that for years has collected a downloadable treasure trove of informative articles and commentary written by leading experts in a variety of disciplines. Accumulated learning means putting the players first.
Concussions damage actions are expensive, and they happen. I also wonder whether, by not joining several other states that have mandated 90-minute weekly maximums (or less), MHSAA unnecessarily weakens its position in any future negligence lawsuit that names the association as a defendant.
What if a concussed football player and his parents allege that the player’s team routinely exceeded the 90-minute voluntary guidelines while remaining within the association’s six-hour mandate? If I were MHSAA’s defense lawyer, I would much rather argue that the statewide association mandated best practices – the nationally emerging 90-minute mandated weekly maximum, or less — and not that the association condoned the team’s exceeding these maximums.
In damage actions, defendants tend to fare better when the judge or jury perceives them as acting within the mainstream. Perceptions help influence settlement negotiations, where most lawsuits terminate short of trial.
Some voices warn that concussion risks in contact and collision youth sports such as football may jeopardize the ability of high school programs and youth leagues to maintain affordable insurance, not only for players, but also for adults who conduct the competition. If the MHSAA spokesperson is right that none of the state’s high school football teams currently approaches the six-hour mandatory maximum, the voluntary guidelines bring jeopardy that seems avoidable and counter-productive – and dangerous.
Sources: Ted Roelofs, Bridge Magazine, June 16, 2016, http://bridgemi.com/2016/06/michigan-balks-at-rule-shortening-full-contact-practice-for-high-school-football/ Thomas P. Dompier et al., Incidence of Concussion During Practice and Games in Youth, High School, and Collegiate American Football Players, JAMA Pediatrics, http://archpedi.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=2281575 (May 4, 2015); Ben Rohrbach, Michigan Recommends Less Full-Contact Football Practice, But Won’t Require It, USA TODAY High School Sports, June 17, 2016 (emphasis in original); MomsTEAM Institute of Youth Sports Safety, Youth Sports Concussion Safety Center, http://momsteam.com/health-safety/concussion-safety