Editorial: High school football must rush to act – DesMoinesRegister.com
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This fall, 362 high school teams are expected to play football in Iowa, ranging from Meskwaki Settlement — with a high school enrollment of 45 students — to 2,170-student West Des Moines Valley. That equals opportunity for more than 18,000 students.
In Iowa, America’s favorite sport isn’t reserved for only the biggest, strongest or fastest. Even after decades of consolidations, many tiny schools maintain football programs, creating eight-man teams or joining with neighboring districts to field teams.
How much longer will this tradition last? Can football survive all the hits it has taken?
Yes, but only if everyone — including lawmakers, parents, administrators, coaches and fans — take safety concerns seriously. A first step for the Iowa Legislature should be passing a bill requiring schools to provide an athletic trainer or other health care professional at varsity football games and other collision sports.
A new Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll illustrates the concerns over safety. About half of those surveyed said they either would not let their children play football or weren’t sure.
Those Iowans’ fears are legitimate. Every day, another horror story emerges of a NFL player suffering chronic traumatic encephalopathy or other debilitating health problems. The medical studies are piling up against high school football, too: Five to 20 percent of students experience at least one concussion in a season of play, studies show, and the brains of children are more susceptible to long-term damage from concussion than adults.
Liability concerns are growing, as well. In May 2015, a jury awarded a former Bedford High School football player nearly $1 million in a case involving the school’s response to his head injuries.
Just as Iowans are divided over football, so are doctors. The American Academy of Pediatrics has proposed reforms to improve the game’s safety. But an editorial in the January 2016 issue of the American Journal of Bioethics calls for public schools to end tackle football.
The safety risks should be balanced with football’s benefits, including fitness, physical and mental toughness, teamwork and discipline.
Scott Heitland is spreading the word about the rewards of playing football without minimizing the safety concerns. He’s head football coach at Dallas Center-Grimes High School and president of the Iowa Football Coaches Association. The father of two sons, people ask him whether he’ll let his 6-year-old, who’s already a fan, play. “We’ll consider what is best for him,” he said, adding it’s a discussion all families must have.
He believes that the game is safer than ever, certainly since he played high school football in the early 1990s. Equipment is better, coaches are smarter about injury warning signs, and players are sitting out until they show no concussion symptoms for five days.
The game’s fundamentals are changing, too. Heitland returned last month from a USA Football training session on “Heads Up” tackling and blocking, which teaches players how to avoid head injuries. He plans to share the techniques with the coaches association’s board of directors.
Coaches like Heitland are fighting against the clock. The NFL is finally showing signs of making the game safer, but its years-long conspiracy of silence on CTE will have long-lasting effects on all of football. Problems also exist on the other end of the spectrum. Kids are padding up younger than ever, much to the dismay of some high school and college coaches. A well-meaning but poorly trained volunteer coach can end up turning kids away from the game, or getting them injured.
“Everyone worries about the over-the-top coach,” Heitland said. Instead of fighting youth football, he and other high school coaches are reaching out to youth leagues and sharing drills, training and techniques to improve safety.
Football’s fate shouldn’t be assumed. The evidence we have now shows the sport is worth saving and that future high schoolers should have the chance to play. But for that to happen, state and school officials need to act.
Otherwise, only the richest and largest programs could afford the risk of offering the sport. And the game will be left to modern-day gladiators bashing skulls for the enjoyment of the rest of us.
College coaches speak out
The Iowa Football Coaches Association plans to launch a promotion this spring featuring college coaches Kirk Ferentz of Iowa, Matt Campbell of Iowa State, Mark Farley of Northern Iowa and Bob Elliott of Notre Dame. The coaches will tout the safety of the game and its benefits in videos displayed on social media, the association’s website and other media.