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Five Potential Changes to Make High School Football Safer


Last week, I took a look at whether youth football was playing a role in the fact that a far greater number of females matriculate to college than males each year.

At the end of the post, I promised what you're about to read: a follow-up post with five suggested changes to high school football in the name of safety.

These suggestions stem from nearly a year's worth of writing about youth football, student-athlete safety, and a whole boatload about concussions.

Without further adieu...

1. Stronger penalties for helmet-to-helmet hits: We'll lead off with a pretty easy, self-explanatory one.

Last year, the NFL announced a league-wide crackdown on enforcing penalties (including suspensions) for illegal helmet-to-helmet hits. It's started issuing fines in the tens of thousands of dollars, but hasn't suspended a player under this policy to date.

Unless a helmet-to-helmet hit gets deemed a flagrant foul, the worst a youth-football player has to worry about is a 15-yard penalty. (If the helmet-to-helmet hit gets called a flagrant foul, the player is suspended from that game.)

Many would argue that needs to change.

The National Federation of State High School Associations issued a Point of Emphasis this year about concussions, where it noted that referees would be paying extra attention to illegal helmet-to-helmet hits this year. That's a great start.

But why not put multi-game suspensions on the table for the most egregious helmet-to-helmet hits, too? Or require that coaches bench any player who leads with his helmet while making a tackle for a quarter (or more)?

2. Ban the wedge formation: The wedge formation is exactly what it sounds like—often three players, with arms or hands linked, setting up a wall for opposing players during kickoffs.

In 2009, the NFL banned players from utilizing the wedge for safety reasons. NFL head of officiating Mike Pereira said that injuries occurred on seven of every 100 kick plays compared with five of every 100 regular plays.

The NCAA also bans players from utilizing the wedge formation during kickoffs, except when the kick is from "obvious onside kick formation."

And yet, the NFSHSA rulebook still allows players to form wedges on kickoffs.

Yes, wedge formations only get more dangers as the players get older, stronger, and faster. But Matt Bowen, former NFL player, told the New York Times back in 2009 that breaking up a wedge felt like taking a 50-yard head start and running into a garage door.

That's really something high school athletics should be encouraging?

3. Mandatory baseline-concussion tests: For those unfamiliar with baseline-concussion tests, these are typically 20-minute online tests that measure a player's healthy brain.

When a player may have a concussion, he or she retakes the test, and a doctor compares the results. The greater the difference in the two tests, the higher the likelihood that the player has a concussion.

While this may seem expensive for some schools, the baseline-concussion test company ImPACT offers schools a package of 600 baseline tests and 240 post-injury tests for a total of $750 per year.

Granted, there are concerns about baseline tests, in regards to athletes trying to "game" the tests by deliberately doing poorly on the preseason version.

But when a school's faced with the choice of baseline tests or nothing in the fight against concussions, is that something better than nothing?

4. Reduction of practices: In just one week this past August, at least three high school student-athletes died during a brutal heat wave where temperatures soared over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

This isn't the first summer where that's happened.

And it's largely preventable, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which issued new heat guidelines for student-athletes in mid-August. The AAP recommends giving student-athletes a 14-day graduated return to physical activity when coming back in August, to help young players acclimate their bodies to the heat.

This is a simple change that could literally mean the difference between life and death for some student-athletes.

Turning to full-contact practices: The Ivy League decided in July to only allow their football teams two full-contact practices per week, three less than the NCAA allows. The league cited the desire to reduce the number of potential concussive impacts that its football players would endure.

On a related note, the NFL's new collective bargaining agreement bans two-a-day practices. It only allows teams 14 full-contact padded practices during the 17-week regular season, too.

All of these changes have been made for the sake of player safety. Is there any reason why high school football can't catch up with the trend?

5. A return to leather helmets?: Logic would dictate that given the technological advancements over the past 100 years, modern football helmets should be much more protective than the old-time leather football helmets, right?

As it turns out, a new study found that leather helmets often protect as well, if not better, than modern-day helmets against a wide range of head impacts.

Modern helmets do protect against splitting players' heads open much better than leather helmets, and there's no underselling that point. (Modern helmets are tested against impacts that would crack a skull, but aren't tested against forces that may cause concussions—a subject currently causing controversy in Congress.)

The new study, published online this month by the Journal of Neurological Spine, measured helmets' responses to collisions of up to 75 g-forces—"on par with 95 percent of on-field collisions" in collegiate and high school games, according to the researchers. Researchers examined two early-20th-century leather helmets against 11 "top-of-the-line" 21st-century polycarbonate helmets.


Ultimately, the modern helmets were found to protect best against head-splitting impacts, but largely performed no better than leather helmets against low-impact, potentially concussion-causing forces. (Check out this graph for proof.)

"The point of this study is not to advocate for a return to leather helmets but, rather, to test the notion that modern helmets must be more protective than older helmets simply because 'newer must be better,' " said lead researcher Adam Bartsch, director of the Spine Research Lab in Cleveland Clinic's Center for Spine Health.

The researchers advocate testing helmets for both low-impact (concussion) and high-impact (skull-fracturing) collisions, especially those for youth football.

"The lack of adequate knowledge surrounding adult-helmet protectivity at low-energy impacts, as well as the current absence of any youth-specific helmet-testing standards, may have serious brain-health implications for the 3 million youths participating in tackle football in the United States each year," the researchers said.

Should youth-football helmets be tested against not just high-impact, skull-cracking forces, but the lower-impact, potentially concussion-causing impacts, too? There's little question anymore.

Photos: (Top) Members of the Hays High School football team begin their workout as they take to the field shortly before sunrise in Hays, Kan., in August. (Steven Hausler/Hays Daily News/AP)

(Right) A high school football game in Greensboro, Ga., in 1941. (Jack Delano/Library of Congress)

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