EVERYTHING EVERGREENS (FOX SPORTS WAUSAU-WSAU): High school football practices are about to undergo big changes. The biggest question isn't if, but when. The WIAA is deciding whether they'll bypass the normal review-and-comment period and implement these changes immediately (starting next month), or get more input and make the changes starting in 2015 or 2016.
The biggest change would be to tightly limit the number of full-contact practices, particularly before the football season begins. There would also be changes in the length and the rest/ recovery periods for pre-season practices. These are changes that seem to have broad support. The proposals were developed with input from the football coaches association and from the state's medical advisers. All of the WIAA's public statements have been favorable, saying these changes put Wisconsin out in front of practice-rule mandates that may come later.
I have a few thoughts on all of this.
In pre-season practice, the number-one concern isn't concussions or injury, it's heart-related problems from heat. At the earliest stages of the season there are large numbers of kids who may not be acclimated to the physical demands of a football practice on a hot, humid summer day. Some won't be used to practicing in pads in warm weather. Others won't be in top shape yet, as they work themselves into game-condition. All of these are legitimate health and safety concerns. That's why I support the practice-length and recovery proposals wholeheartedly.
But I'm more skeptical about the rules that limit full-contact practices. The goal is to specifically prevent concussions and head injuries. These are very rare injuries in practice, and are far more common in game situations. And the key to playing football safely is practice -- specifically practicing proper tackling technique. What I'd like to see is not limits on contact, but mandatory teaching of the 'heads up' football program. On game-day I see far to many defensive players lead with their heads, and many runners and receivers who lower their heads when they're about to absorb defensive contact. On close-contact leverage plays (at the goal-line or on short-yardage plays with tight formations), some players also instinctively drop their heads. Those are the most-dangerous situations where concussions, head, and neck injuries are most likely to take place. And playing football with your head-up is not a natural instinct; it's taught.
Everyone who enjoys football wants to make the game as safe as possible. I hope we're making the right decisions.