The Georgia High School Association, however, leveled the playing field for all of its programs this week regardless of classification or geographic location when it established new guidelines for preseason practices in summer aimed at preventing heat-related deaths.
According to University of Georgia researchers, who released their findings of a three-year study to the GHSA, heat-related deaths across the country tripled to nearly three per year between 1994-2009.
Last August, the state experienced two heat-related deaths of high school football players.
The new GHSA guidelines not only ban three-a-day practices, but create restrictions for how football staff’s can run preseason drills with hopes of avoiding similar injuries and/or deaths.
“I can’t speak for the executive committee, but speaking as an athletic director, it’s definitely a good thing,” said East Coweta’s Evan Horton, one of 48 executive committee members on hand or Monday’s meeting in Macon. “From the information that we were presented in the study, what risks are involved and how and when they occur, this is a no brainer.”
The new policies allow practices on five consecutive weekdays prior to the GHSA’s Aug. 1 “start date” only in helmets and for no more than two hours.
Beginning Aug. 1, no athlete can participate in full pads until they have completed five conditioning practices in no more than a helmet and mouthpiece.
The new regulations also restrict two-a-day practices to none that last longer than three hours and no more than a combined five hours of practice per day. There must be at least a three-hour rest between the practice sessions.
Two-a-days also can not run consecutively during the week. All double-session days must be followed by a single session of practice or an off day.
The UGA report, directed by Michael Ferrara, professor of kinesiology and associate dean for research in the school’s College of Education and Bud Cooper, associate department head for the department of kinesiology, found that Georgia led the nation in deaths with seven fatalities during the span of the study.
The GHSA, in addition, revised its bylaws regarding practice policies in heat and humidity and established a minimum $500 fine and a maximum of $1,000 for those found violating heat policies.
“Our previous research shows heat illness rates are highest in the Southeast,” said Ferrara. “Heatstroke is a preventable death with proper acclimatization of the athlete, recognition of the condition, and immediate and rapid cooling when a heat stroke is suspected.”
Coweta’s schools have been as proactive as any around the state with longtime trainers James “Radar” Brantley at Newnan, Lloyd Knott at East Coweta and Dale Krach at Northgate all taking further precautions last August when heat became a topic of concern among football practices.
In his 31st year, Brantley was recently honored by Newnan High’s football program at its annual banquet with the “Gene Tyre Award”for 350 consecutive football games as the school’s head trainer. Knott has spent the last 28 at East Coweta High and Krach has been at Northgate since it became a high school in the late 1990s after working with Brantley at Newnan.
All three were on top of the heat last August while maintaining precautions. Newnan’s practice fields were littered with huge water stations every 20 yards or so. East Coweta again erected a large tent to provide shade during water breaks, throwing in the occasional watermelon break during some practice days.
“He’s my safety valve,” said Horton of Knott. “I know I can always count on him. There are good things that we’ve already been doing. We’ve been pretty proactive with things like the cooling zones with the tents. We’ve heeded the advice of our own trainers. What it does now, if we follow what’s been told to us as mandated, is that we’ll hopefully never have to experience a problem.”
All three trainers kept wet bulb devices at their sides last summer. The GHSA now mandates that devices must be used at each practice to establish activity and rest break guidelines.
The GHSA had required schools to monitor their environment, but without guidelines to measure weather conditions, the length of practice duration, the number of practice sessions, or the amount/type of equipment worn. Nor were there were guidelines relating these factors to acclimatization or heat stress.
“We wanted to develop a policy that would be practical and allow student athletes exposure to the environmental conditions but be as safe as possible,” GHSA Executive Director Ralph Swearngin. “We are confident that we are taking the right steps.”
Under new restrictions, there can be no activities with a wet bulb reading over 92.1. Readings between 90-92 the maximum length of practice is one hour. Players cannot wear padding under such conditions or go through conditioning activities. For each hour there must also be a 20-minute rest break.
For wet bulb readings between 87-89, a maximum practice time of two hours is allowed with restrictions to helmets, shoulder pads and shorts. All conditioning must be done without equipment and four 4-minute rest breaks are required for each hour.
Subsequent restrictions are also required for readings between 82-86.9 (three rest breaks for four minutes each hour) and under 82.0 (three breaks for three minutes each hour).
“We wanted to provide flexibility to schools and coaches in designing their practice to be as safe as possible,” said Ferrara. “No injury is 100 percent preventable, but using our evidence, we feel we have developed reasonable guidelines for the student-athlete.”
Other items stemming from Monday’s GHSA meeting regarding next year’s move to six classifications:
GOLF — A motion to institute state sectionals prior to the GHSA state tournament was approved for next year. Also, scores for girls will now be determined by the lowest three golfers in Class AAA-AAAAAA schools.
SOCCER — State championship matches starting next year will be moved to a central site. The GHSA will use Silverbacks Stadium and Kennesaw State’s soccer facilities next season.
BASKETBALL — State quarterfinals will now be held at the gym of the higher seeded team. Semifinal rounds will be held at seven centralized sites by classification.
FOOTBALL — Next year’s seven state championship games, including two in Class A, will be held over consecutive days in the Georgia Dome (three on Friday, four on Saturday).
SWIMMING — The GHSA will keep two classifications in swimming — Class AAAAAA and AAAAA-A. New state qualifying standards were also adopted.
VOLLEYBALL — There will be six separate classifications in the sport starting next year, eliminating the former AA/A classification.