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.”