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August 6, 2014

MHSAA alters rules for football practice with aim at player safety

By Mike Moore
C & G Sports Writer

With the start of the 2014 high school football season set for Aug. 11, the Michigan High School Athletic Association is set to usher in a new list of practice guidelines aimed at curtailing the amount of contact in the days leading up to the season and during time between games.

“We were cautious about this, because whenever you initiate a change for safety, the assumption is that there were inordinate risks beforehand,” said John Roberts, the MHSAA executive director. “Nevertheless, with all the bad publicity out there, especially in the NFL, we felt we had to do several things simultaneously.”

Roberts said the first goal was to promote how safe school-sponsored football has been in Michigan, citing the fact that there have been very few serious head injuries, “especially the kind that grab headlines,” he added. “We’ve been fortunate, but we’re also trying to stay ahead of the game.”

That’s where the second and third keys come in.

The first part of the new rule states, “full pads may not be worn until the fifth day of team practice,” during the first week of the season.

This is one day longer than in the past, and the objective is to give players an extra day of conditioning and practice-type work in the summer heat before contact in full pads begins.

The third key of the new rules, as Roberts put it, “is to reduce the head-to-head impact frequency in practice.”

Under the provision, and before regular-season games begin, “teams may not schedule more than one ‘collision’ practice” in one day.

According to the rule, a collision practice is “one in which there is live, game-speed, player-vs.-player contact in pads involving any number of players. This includes practices with scrimmages, drills and simulations where action is live, game-speed, player-vs.-player.”

“These rules are going a step further than some of the (protecting-the-head) rules already established, whereby we are cutting down on the cumulative effect of hitting,” Roberts said. “We think there is enough evidence at the higher levels, with men playing well longer than four years, where it’s the cumulative effect of collisions to the head that causes the problem.”

In addition, after the first game of the season, teams may not conduct more than two collision practices in a week. Full pads may still be worn, but the game-speed, player-vs.-player collisions are allowed just twice during the week.

This change may not be so much of a change, though, as many coaches and programs have been self-implementing this strategy for years.

“I think the (coaching) breed of heavy contact all week is dying fast,” said Beverly Hills Detroit Country Day coach Dan MacLean. “We’ve always tried to get our heavy hitting days out of the way early in the week. The rule of coaching is to keep your own guys healthy, so we really don’t see much of this changing what we do.”

“I think the nice thing about it is the state stepping in and trying to limit the possible chances for a concussion or trauma,” said Madison Heights Lamphere coach Jason Charron. “Personally, being a smaller school, we’ve only had two hit practices a week anyway. So it’s not really going to change much.”

Utica Eisenhower coach Chris Smith agreed.

“We don’t do a lot of live hitting at our school, so I don’t think it’s really going to affect the way we practice,” he said. “If you teach the form of tackling, the form of blocking and how to do that, you’ll be fine once the games come. I think all of that is good to protect kids, and I think that you can teach and coach football without relying on the live drills.”

“The response to these rule changes has been quiet positive,” Roberts said. “We have coaches on the task force that helped draft these proposals. At the end of it all, they came to the conclusion that roughly 85 percent of coaches are already doing similar things. This was, more or less, for the 15 percent that weren’t doing it just yet. We wanted to get everyone on the same page.”

“And we’re not the first state to do this,” he continued. “I’ve been told we’re in the second wave of states that have made similar changes. Before long, the vast majority will have revised policies like this.”

To view the complete policy change for the 2014 season, go to http://www.mhsaa.com/sports and click on the Football tab.