Michigan balks at rule shortening full-contact practice for high school football

s safety advocate Kimberly Archie: “The more hits you have, the more likely you are to suffer brain damage.” Purdue University concussion researcher Larry Leverenz said changes in brain function in football players are “directly related” to the number of blows to the head.

As evidence mounts of the risk of brain damage from the accumulation of routine collisions in football, new guidelines for Michigan high schools call for no more than 90 minutes of full-contact practice a week.

The guidelines would put Michigan in line with states like Alabama, Iowa, Kansas, Georgia, Texas, California and Tennessee, all of which have moved to limit practice contact to 90 minutes a week. Ohio and Wisconsin are even more restrictive, limiting full-contact practice to just 60 minutes a week.

There's just one catch: The guideline is a recommendation only – the official requirement of the Michigan High School Athletic Association still allows six hours of full-contact practice a week. Sports safety advocates and concussion researchers say Michigan should fall in line with other states and make the new, 90-minute guideline a mandate.

Purdue University concussion researcher Larry Leverenz noted to Bridge that repeated studies have shown that potential brain damage in football players is directly tied to the number of blows to the head, whether or not a player suffered a concussion.

“Our research is showing that changes that we are seeing in brain activity are related directly to the number of hits that a person receives to the head,” said Leverenz, a clinical professor in the Department of Health & Kinesiology.

“You can decrease the risk without changing the game. Limiting the amount of hits in practice is one way of doing that.

“It would make sense (in Michigan) to make that a policy,” he said.

Indeed, a 2012 Purdue University study tracked a couple dozen high school football players over two seasons and found that players logged anywhere from 200 to 1,800 hits to the head over the course of a season. MRI tests found that 17 players – who wore special helmets equipped with sensors – had measurable changes to their brain, with the magnitude of change corresponding to the number of hits to the head a player took. None of the players logged having a concussion.

Renewed discussion on the impact of football collisions on young players followed a Bridge article in October, which revealed that Michigan allows up to six times as much full-contact practice time as neighboring states like Ohio and Wisconsin.

A MHSAA spokesman insisted no high school in Michigan engages in as much as six hours of weekly contact in practice, even though it's still allowed by policy.

“I think the football community is very aware of the long-term effect of repetitive hits,” said MHSAA communications director John Johnson.

“I think this reflects the feeling that existed in the football community of what was happening on the field. No one thought that anyone was using all of the possible time (six hours) allotted for contact in practice.”

As to why the 90-minute contact limit was not made mandatory, Johnson said schools are already consumed by new reporting requirements that record concussions in practice and games for a variety of sports throughout the year, including football.

“The football community was concerned about the reporting issues. Schools are already being asked to do more than ever before,” he said.

MHSAA continues to put out the message that high school football, because of changes in tackling techniques and equipment improvement “is safer than ever.”

That perspective was conveyed in a recorded MHSAA phone loop earlier this month for callers on hold that included the message that the safety protections surrounding football are “mother approved” and that “serious injuries are at an all-time low.”

In 2015, MHSAA asked that its 760 member high schools across the state report suspected concussions during practice and competition for sports including football, soccer, boys and girls basketball and wrestling. Football, with 39 percent of all fall participants, had about 1,900 concussions - 79 percent of all concussions reported for the season. Overall, 2 percent of 100,000 participants in fall sports experienced concussions. For winter sports, less than 2 percent had concussions.

In the meantime, concern over the dangers of football has been heightened in recent years by building evidence of a link between the sport and a devastating, debilitating brain condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy – or CTE. It is a condition long tied to boxing but only in the last decade to football.

In 2005, a forensic neuropathologist published findings on his examination of the brain of former Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker Mike Webster, who died in 2002 with severe dementia. He concluded Webster had CTE ‒ the first time it was confirmed in an NFL player. In 2012, former NFL linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide with a gunshot to the chest at age 43. It was later determined he had CTE as well.

In 2015, researchers at the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University found that 87 of 91 deceased NFL players whose brains were tested had evidence of CTE (That percentage is likely skewed since many of the players suspected they had CTE and asked that their brains be tested after they died).

The link to CTE has not been confined to NFL players.

In 2013, an autopsy found signs of CTE in a former all-state Upper Peninsula football player who competed in four years of youth football and four years of junior varsity and high school football. The ex-player, Joseph Chernach, hung himself at age 25.

A national advocate for youth safety in sports sees Michigan as out of step with the direction other states are going on policy for full-contact practice. California adopted its 90-minute limit on weekly full-contact in 2014 – a policy imposed by legislation signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown. In July 2015, the Ohio High School Athletic Association, a hotbed for high school football talent, adopted a limit of no more than two 30-minute full-contact practices a week.

“Michigan is very much an outlier position in 2016,” said California resident Kimberly Archie, a founder of a national campaign launched earlier this year to raise awareness of the risks of repetitive head trauma in youth sports. Her son, Paul Bright, died in 2014 at 24 from a motorcycle accident but a subsequent autopsy found he had CTE. He played football from the ages of 7 to 17.

“If we know people get carpal tunnel from typing a lot and we don't think a lot of hits in football is a problem, then something is wrong,” Archie said.

Russ McKenzie, athletic director at Lamphere High School in Madison Heights suburban Detroit, backed the 90-minute full-contact guideline as a member of MHSAA's Football Committee. Passed by that committee in January, the guideline was approved by the MHSSA governing council in May.

“We were looking at limiting the risk of concussions in practice,” McKenzie said.

As one who coached high school football for 21 years, McKenzie said he believes coaches today shy away from even 90 minutes of full-contact practice a week.

“I doubt anyone would get close to that. We are trying to keep kids healthy.”

But asked why the 90-minute limit wasn't made policy, McKenzie was unsure.

“That's a good question, honestly. I don't know why they would want it that way. I would support making it the rule.

“Is there a coach out there that could allow that (six hours of weekly practice hitting)? I guess there is. But I never ran across that person when I was coaching.”

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Thu, 06/16/2016 - 1:41pm
I think we should go several steps better and ban the use of any K-12 tax support money for high school football and possibly soccer as well. Because of the risk of both acute and chronic injuries to the players, I want to completely eliminate football from intra- and inter-mural school athletics. Let those who want to play these sports form or join clubs and pay for their own practice sites and coaching as the hockey players do. It's one thing to encourage life-long fitness with school athletic programs, but tax-funding sports that lead all too often to life-altering injuries is a misuse of Michigan's education dollars.
Jon Bisnett
Sun, 06/19/2016 - 12:39am
Interesting perspective on use of K-12 funds except for the fact of revenue reality that in the vast majority of Michigan Schools, Varsity Football is one of few if not the only sport that actually pays for itself and typically creates excess revenue via ticket sales.
Nicholas M
Thu, 06/16/2016 - 9:31pm
This email is in response to Anna. In your zeal to destroy all athletics that have risk, you forgot to mention basketball, bicycling, cheerleading, swimming, skiing and gymnastics...in addition to many other everyday risks such as driving a car (see your risk of mortality here: http://www.iii.org/fact-statistic/mortality-risk) For sporting injury risks, see the Forbes article here:http://www.forbes.com/2006/11/15/sports-injuries-fitness-forbeslife_cz_c...There are risks in every activity humans undertake, including just getting out of bed in the morning. However, there are ways to reduce risk and play smart. Sports (yes, including the riskier ones) have lifelong benefits to those who participate that include physical health, self esteem, team work and the reward of hard work. All three of my children participate in all types of sporting activities, including football, hockey, soccer, baseball, volleyball and basketball...and I wouldn't want it any other way.
Robyn Tonkin
Sat, 06/18/2016 - 11:55am
Our daughter, now 36, participated in junior high and high school sports-- track and basketball--against the strenuous objections of her father and I, as we did not want her to be injured needlessly playing games, and we were extremely opposed to her skipping classes to go to sports events. She told me recently she wished she had never done it, and will not allow her son, now 2, to participate in either football or basketball. At the time she was growing up, her father was a career forester (lots of walking and snowshoeing) and a career Special Forces Army Reserve officer--lots of ruck marching, parachute jumps and weight training, as well as running every week. So obviously, we are not against physical fitness. To add to that list, during our daughter's high school years, our family was a member of the local fitness center, where we weight trained as a family, and used the treadmills, three times per week. I began fitness running at age 38, when our daughter was 12, and continue in that hobby to this day. So obviously, fitness was important to our family. Our daughter wishes that she had not participated in school sports because she repeatedly sprained her ankle, and the residual aftermath of these injuries plagues her to this day. Also, she found the attitude of some parents and coaches repellent. Today, our daughter is a weight trainer, runner and bicycling enthusiast. She loves to compete, and places well all the time, both for women her age and in general. so, the sports that WE did with her-- the running, weight lifting and bicyle riding-- are the sports that support her fitness goals, and those of her husband, today, not the team sports. School team sports please coaches and teachers (they get paid) and parents (they enjoy the hobby of having sport oriented kids, which forms a social backbone of the society of many American towns). If your child is good in sports, he or she will be popular, and parents bask in the warm glow of this popularity. If your child is badly injured or killed, was being popular, "fitting in" and maybe getting a minor scholarship to some midrange college worth it? no.
Mon, 06/20/2016 - 9:15am
Nicholas M - I don't want to destroy ALL sports. It is primarily football, travel-league soccer, and to a lesser degree basketball that leave their competitive high school players crippled in middle age and experiencing early senility due to repeated brain impact. I object to my tax dollars supporting these programs, period. It doesn't matter one bit that you (or anyone else) claims that ticket sales balance out the facilities, coaching, equipment and insurance costs to school districts. School athletics budget books are cooked, and I can show you the details of how it's done for any district that follows transparency rules and publishes their budget. It is the safety and long-term health of the students I care most about. Some sports are just too dangerous for most kids to be allowed to play them. We as a society should not be encouraging these activities in school, ever. Let schools have track and field teams, swim teams, baseball teams, golf teams, tennis teams. Let there be recreation league and intramural soccer, basketball and volleyball teams. All those sports are ones which can be pursued for the rest of a person's life, providing fun and exercise. Any valuable lessons about teamwork and dedication can be learned just as well by pursuing activities much safer than football. Let those who want their children to play high-risk sports do so outside the publicly-funded school system.
Phil L.
Fri, 06/17/2016 - 12:17pm
Question for Mr Roelofs: Are you aware of any studies comparing HS full contact practice length with concussion rate? Something like schools with 90 minutes have average of x rate and schools with 60 minutes have y rate?
Sat, 06/18/2016 - 4:32pm
Fear not concerned parents and grandparents. The insurance companies will soon prevail and things will change as soon as their bean counters realize their costs of being stupid and not driving change for better long term health and less cost of caring for the concussioned infirm who require avoidable long term medical attention.
Sun, 06/19/2016 - 7:16am
The football community was concerned about the reporting issues. Schools are already being asked to do more than ever before,” he said. So the problem is they don't like dealing with the paperwork of tracking this? Give me a break.
Wed, 06/22/2016 - 9:24am
In recent years participation in high school football has dropped around 10% nationwide. Most likely triggered by concerns over concussions and other long term injuries to the brain.
Tue, 06/28/2016 - 10:09am
And a little more of the other side of the story...https://www.mhsaa.com/news/blog-from-the-director/articletype/articlevie...Here's an important outtake from that blog: If there is a 30-minute limit on contact in a day or a 90-minute limit on contact in a week, is it the same 30-minute or 90-minute period for all players, even if many are not involved in one or more of the contact drills? Or does the limit apply to each player individually; and if so, how is that tracked, and by whom? These and other questions made coaches and administrators question how effective a limit on minutes might really be. Nevertheless, a 90-minute per week limit during regular season has been made an MHSAA recommendation for the 2016 season. This will provide an opportunity to address and possibly answer some of the questions that have been raised. The MHSAA will survey schools this fall about their practice plans and the actual time spent in contact drills by players, assessing how that differs according to offense, defense, player position and grade in school, and determining best practices for how to track player contact minutes. When Michigan acted in 2014 to limit contact in practice, it was one of the first states to do so. As Michigan takes additional steps to limit contact in practice, it will be one of the first states to do so after researching the best ways to actually do it.