Home » Blog » Brooke De Lench » Limiting Full-Contact Practices in High School Football: The Time to Act is Now!

For those of you who may be wondering why you haven't seen a blog from me in recent weeks, there is a simple answer: I have been head down (pardon the pun) finishing up MomsTEAM's high school football concussion documentary, The Smartest Team.

Newcastle, Oklahoma football player about to be tackledTwo news items on the subject of brain trauma in high school football, however, hit my desk over the past week which deserve comment.

The first, during the run-up to the Super Bowl in New Orleans, was the call by the Sports Legacy Institute urging state high school athletic associations to ban off-season full-contact practices, something MomsTEAM has supported for years.

The second was the introduction by Illinois state representative Carol Sente of legislation which would limit the number of full-contact practices in high school football during the season to one (again, a step that we have supported in the past, although not, I must admit, to the extent of limiting such practices to just one).

As those of you who follow the concussion issue know, there is a growing body of evidence which suggests that brain trauma to football players can result, not just from violent helmet-on-helmet collisions hard enough to lead to concussions but from the cumulative effect of less forceful, but repetitive, subconcussive blows.

Up to now, however, no steps have been taken to limit such trauma at the high school level. According to research compiled by SLI, no state high school association sets any limits on in-season full-contact practice days; while 19 states explicitly ban offseason full-contact practices, 29 allow them, either in the spring or summer, ranging from an unspecified number of days to 14 days in Wyoming, 17 days in Florida, 18 days in Texas, 20 days in Illinois, 3 weeks in Mississippi. 

As a result, high school football players were exposed during the 2012 season to levels of brain trauma considered dangerous and unacceptable for adults and younger players, this despite the fact that studies show that the developing brain of teenagers is likely more susceptible and vulnerable to diffuse brain injury than college and pro athletes.

Why high school football has been so resistant to change is anyone's guess.  It is all the more surprising given the fact that, two years ago, the NFL eliminated offseason full-contact practices and reduced the number of full-contact practice days during the season to 14, less than one per week; that, at the college level, the Ivy League acted before the 2011 season to reduce the number of full-contact practices per week to two from the NCAA limit of five and banned two-a-day full-padded practices during the pre-season; and that, in June 2012, rules limiting full-contact practices were enacted by Pop Warner at the youth level.

I wholeheartedly agree with Isaiah Kacyvenski, a member of the SLI board of directors, when he said last week that there are many changes that are "urgently needed in youth and high school football to make it safer."  Indeed, there are steps to make the sport safer for our kids which MomsTEAM has been talking about for years; steps that The Smartest Team will show can be implemented right now

But I am not sure I agree with Kacyvenski when he calls a ban on off-season practices, "low hanging fruit."  If it was, the practices would have been already banned.

Whether any states will move to ban pre-season full-contact practices or enact laws to reduce the number of such practices during the season, only time will tell.

But I am glad that others have joined me in calling for these steps to be taken.  The time to act is now!

April 27, 2013 update: The Executive Board of the Arizona Interscholastic Association voted on April 15, 2013 to limit contact practice (padded athletes in contact with each other) in the pre-season to no more than 1/2 of practices, and to no more than 1/3 of practice time in the regular season. On April 21, 2013, the Medical Advisory Committee of the University Interscholastic League (UIL), which, despite its name, is the governing body for high school sports in Texas, unanimously recommended limiting football programs to 90 minutes of full-contact, game-speed practices (with tackling and blocking to the ground) per player per week during the regular season and playoffs.  On April 22, 2013, the Washington Interscholastic Athletic Association announced an amendment to its rules to limit to 10 the number of padded, full-contact practices at the end of spring sports (including seven-on-seven competition and summer team camps) and a total of 20 days under the supervision of the coaching staff.  For a blog discussing these developments, click here.