Spring practice is underway this week for Arizona high-school football teams. Coaches get their first chance to evaluate prospects for next season – but it’s also a good time to evaluate some of the most recent changes to the sport that directly effect the players, including a new rule that limits contact work during practices.
That’s the latest effort to protect players from the damaging effects of concussions. A couple of years ago, the state of Arizona began mandating concussion education for high-school athletes through an online program designed to help players recognize the signs of a concussion and help minimize the possibility of a second occurrence.
And there’s an Arizona law that also prevents an athlete diagnosed with a concussion during a game from returning to play without a written clearance from a health-care professional.
Out of the entire list of high-school sports, football draws the most participants, with just over a million nationwide each year. And Arizona high schools were third for having the most players on average. So it makes sense that Arizona would want to take the lead by becoming the first state in the country to mandate concussion testing.
The Barrow Brainbook, a program created by the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, was created to help athletes better understand concussions and the warning signs of a head injury. In the three years since it became mandated reading, almost 200,000 Arizona high-school players have used the program.
Based on the latest figures available, from the 2012-13 school year, there were 18,803 high-school athletes playing football at 192 schools throughout the state. That works out to just under 98 participating per high school, while Texas averaged 156 and California 99.
But Arizona ranks second in the nation for the incidence of traumatic brain injuries.
So about this time last year, the state’s governing body for high-school sports, the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) took the player-protection issue a step further by adopting a new by-law that limits the time that can be devoted to contact during practices. Teams should have held contact work – defined as players being in pads and making contact with others – to no more than half of each pre-season practice last season and no more than one-third once the season began.
On the flip side, there are some studies that suggest that when programs cut back on contact in practice to reduce injuries, it might actually have the opposite effect because it gives young players less time to learn the right techniques and practice them before getting into actual game situations.
Now, when the issue is beginning to get increased attention in prep football, is the time to evaluate both sides of the studies – before another off-season gets into full swing.
The attention right now is on next year’s impact players and those schools that have undergone coaching changes, particularly those like small-school power Blue Ridge High School, which won 13 state titles under Paul Moro before he left to take over at Florence High School, and a Chaparral High program that won three straight Division II state titles from 2009-11.
But, hopefully, some attention will also be devoted to evaluating the effect of the limited-contact practice rules now that the 2013 season has provided a case study.
There are 192 coaches out there that can provide the results. But someone has to ask them.