Head injuries No. 1 on IHSA’s agenda

Mike Greene -
Harvard's Ian Stricker (left) goes up against teammate Christian Kramer in a drill during a practice Tuesday, August 14, 2012 at Harvard High School.
Mike Greene - Harvard's Ian Stricker (left) goes up against teammate Christian Kramer in a drill during a practice Tuesday, August 14, 2012 at Harvard High School.

Marty Hickman won’t promise high school football coaches in Illinois that limits won’t be put into place restricting how often players hit one another.

The executive director of the IHSA deals daily with pressure to combat the risk of serious head injuries at a time when concerns about concussions and traumatic brain injuries surround the state’s most-heavily populated sport.

Over the past decade, coaches have changed the way they’ve run practices. They’ve eliminated operating like they did during what Huntley coach John Hart calls the Wild West Days. They’ve prohibited old-school drills such as the Bull In the Ring, during which head-jarring hits could come from anywhere at any time. But still, he knows, there is more that needs to be done.

Despite the progress that’s been made, though, Hickman knows the IHSA’s work is just beginning now that a house bill seeking to limit full-contact drills during the season and prohibit them during the summer and offseason failed to get out of committee last week.

“The goal is really to make participation in our events as safe as possible,” Hickman said in a phone interview Thursday. “But I think we are the entity that should have the ability to work through those kind of issues.”

That plan will begin in earnest April 17.

In a meeting slated to include the IHSA’s sports medicine advisory committee and its football advisory committee as well as representatives from the Sports Legacy Institute in Boston, state athletic association officials will seek to find solutions to questions everyone involved admits they don’t have all the answers to.

Limits similar to what State Rep. Carol Sente (D-Lincolnshire) was pushing for in House Bill 1205 could be a possibility. Other avenues will be explored, all geared at addressing concerns that Sente raised that Hickman acknowledged last week are real.

SLI, a nonprofit co-founded by former Harvard football player and World Wrestling Entertainment wrestler Chris Nowinski, is in the midst of a nationwide push among high school athletic associations to ban full-contact practices in the offseason.

Research conducted by SLI found that no states have limits in place on full-contact drills during the season while 29 allow the practice to continue during the offseason and summer. Illinois allows for 20 such days – a number Nowinski said in a phone interview last week is much too high.

“I think we need to have restrictions on exposure [to full-contact drills],” Nowinski said. “I will agree there’s a certain amount of repetition to learn not to fracture your spine. But to get above that, you’re putting miles on your brain.”

The Boston University Brain Bank conducted a study using 44 former college and professional football players. Of those, 43 were diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease. While much of the attention around football players has centered around concussions, the greater concern along medical officials is the damage caused by repetitive blows to the head.

The NFL Player’s Association voted to prohibit offseason full-contact drills last year and the league already limits in-season full-contact days to 14. Nowinski said the fact pro football is safer than high school is “baffling,” which is part of the reason the SLI is attempting to ban it among high school football players nationwide.

Tennessee Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has joined the efforts, speaking on the matter at a news conference before this year’s Super Bowl in New Orleans. While NFL players have a union to represent them, he said the issue must be addressed for high school players who have no such representation.

“The only reason it’s not the same way in high school is that players cannot negotiate. They have no voice,” Hasselbeck said. “We are here to lend our voice for these young men.”

Nowinski and others have expressed concern that if limits are not set for players starting in high school, the chances of players experiencing traumatic brain injuries later in life greatly increase.

“I know we have years of (football) tradition behind us,” Nowinski said. “But we rewrite the rules of football every year and this is an issue that needs to be prioritized.”

Nowinski plans to be part of helping IHSA officials reach a solution that Hickman said could include exploring possible limits to full-contact drills. Hickman said that while the IHSA has worked together with schools and athletic directors across the state, coaches and parents need to be better educated about head injuries.

Hickman said contact rules will be among the top agenda items for next month’s meeting. Working with Nowinski’s institute, he said, will provide valuable information to coaches and athletic directors who are working to avoid putting players at risk. But Nowinski said some of the responsibility has to be put on players’ informing coaches when they think they may have sustained a head injury.

That starts with better education.

“We have to give these athletes the chance to report their concussions,” Nowinski said. “The reason they’re not reporting them is not because they’re trying to out-smart [coaches]. It’s because we never told them what a concussion was. They don’t understand it.”

Making information available to coaches, parents and players will be part of the state’s plan to step up its efforts to minimize risk, Hickman said. Predicting what limits could be coming, Hickman said, is premature, but could be part of the discussions that take place.

Faith Lutheran athletic director Drew Potthoff, who is part of the IHSA’s Legislative Advisory Committee, said coaches must better define what constitutes full-contact and what limiting days of those drills would look like before any decisions are made.

Potthoff, a former football coach at South Beloit High School, said coaches have cut down on how many full-contact drills their players participate in as concussions and other serious injuries have become more prevalent. Whether the IHSA needs to take another step in that area, Hickman said, will be discussed by officials next month.

“I think there’s always more we can do and that’s what we’ve been trying to communicate all along,” Hickman said. “These issues are on our radar and we want to continue to look at it and do the best we can to minimize risk.

“But I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where we say, ‘OK, we’re done, that’s as good as it’s going to get.’ But we need to continue to move in that direction.”

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