Georgia's New Football Policy Heats Up
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Cities across the country have seen record highs this summer and the heat's not over yet. That's bad news for farmers, of course, and for thousands of middle school and high school football players who are outside practicing. In the past 15 years, dozens of deaths on the playing field have been attributed to the heat. Now the State of Georgia is trying to change that.
As NPR's Kathy Lohr reports, it's adopted new guidelines to keep players cool.
KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: It's seven in the evening and with the temperature in the 90s, it's simmering on the football field at John's Creek High School, north of Atlanta.
ROB POITEVENT: We're going to run for about 30 minutes what we call teams, offense on defense.
LOHR: Coach Rob Poitevent carries a white binder, the playbook, and talks to the 8th grade junior Gladiators almost like a father.
POITEVENT: Hey, listen. Listen. Let's form up the huddle. Where's my center?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: So what are you saying?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Huddle.
POITEVENT: Back to the ball
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Back to the ball.
POITEVENT: Hands up in the air.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: All right.
POITEVENT: You are in charge of the huddle. OK?
LOHR: New heat rules are in effect after the deaths of two Georgia high school players last year. Now, student-athletes don't wear pads for the first five practices so they can get used to the heat. They get more rest and water breaks. There has to be a cooling station on the field. Fines are imposed if schools fail to follow the policy. And Coach Poitevent tells parents this evening about a new device that monitors the temperature on the field.
POITEVENT: Heat is a big issue. We have a wet bulb apparatus out here that measures the relative humidity and the temperature together, so the heat index. And there's a guide-scale that when that reading exceeds 92, for example, we can't practice.
LOHR: Poitevent says, until now, the decision about whether and when to practice was left up to the coaches.
POITEVENT: It takes the burden or the liability off of the coaches, folks who are really not trained. And for the parents and the kids, I think just an added safety factor that's very necessary.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Set, hut.
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LOHR: Ian Street's son Jake plays on the team and he says he's counseled his son to tell the coach if he needs to sit out a play. But Ian says he realizes kids don't always tell the truth.
IAN STREET: I think in any sport there's always some kind of peer pressure. You know, whether you're going to be the first one to speak up and say can I stop? So I think that applies to any sport that's played today. And really I think there's always a degree of peer pressure in people, especially kids not wanting to be the first one to raise their hand and say, Hey, I think I need to stop.
LOHR: Another parent, Elizabeth Summers, learned a couple of years ago about the effects of the heat, when she found out after practice that her son was in trouble.
ELIZABETH SUMMERS: His speech was kind of slurred. He couldn't think straight. Nothing was coming out. He would say unusual things that didn't make sense. And it was kind of alerted to me that something was wrong with him. He was very hot to the touch and we just took him to the doctor right away.
LOHR: Summer's son was OK after a couple days rest. But the goal of the new Georgia rules is to prevent exactly that kind of incident.
POITEVENT: You OK?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1 #3: Yeah.
POITEVENT: Alright, here we go. This ought to be one of our favorite plays right here. So let's learn to run it.
LOHR: According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury, more than 50 players have died since 1995 due to heat stroke. Georgia is one of seven states to pass heat policies, in part because of student deaths that experts say are largely preventable.
Douglas Casa is with the Korey Stringer Institute, at the University of Connecticut. He says student players die every year because of heat injuries.
DOUGLAS CASA: We think it's because of how serious and intense and demanding these football practices have become, where we see lot of high school programs are trying to mimic college programs. But yet the high school programs don't have the proper, you know, strength and conditioning coaches and medical staff to take care of people if the problems do arise.
LOHR: Casa is working with a dozen more states to develop new heat regulations. Just last week, the families of two 16-year-old football players - one in Georgia, the other in Florida - announced they plan to sue over the heat-related deaths of their sons. The parents say the coaches pushed too hard and failed to protect their boys.
Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.
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