Part 1: Safety first for the MHSAA

Published 7:28 pm Monday, November 18, 2013


During election years, it’s a familiar rallying cry: “Four more years! Four more years!”

It’s become commonplace following the third quarter of football games around the country for members of the leading team to march down the gridiron with four fingers raised on one outstretched hand as teams switch ends of the field to signify, “Fourth quarter is ours; finish the job.”

The number four also is significant in education with school terms identified as freshman, sophomore, junior and senior years.

To that end, the MHSAA is imploring everyone involved in educational athletics to go back to school in 2013-14 with a four-year mission in mind: “Four Thrusts for Four Years.”

The goal is to attain and maintain advanced degrees in sports safety, positioning Michigan schools in the center of best practices for ensuring the health of our product and students, today and beyond.

“Just a brief look around all levels of today’s athletic landscape reveals heightened awareness of health and safety issues,” said MHSAA Executive Director Jack Roberts. “Interscholastic sports as a whole – and particularly school sports in Michigan – has long led the charge to employ the safest contest rules and provide the healthiest environments for our games and participants.

“But, to put it in athletic terms, we can’t sit on the lead,” Roberts added. “We can, and must, improve our games in order to guarantee their existence for future generations. That is our goal, our thrust in the coming years.”

Following are the focal points for this four-year plan:

Implement heat and humidity management policies at all schools for all sports.

• Require more initial and ongoing sports safety training for more coaches.

• Revise practice policies generally, but especially for early in the fall season.

• Modify game rules to reduce the frequency of the most dangerous play situations, and to reduce head trauma.

The directive actually kicked off last March, when the Representative Council approved a heat management policy for MHSAA tournaments and a detailed model policy for schools. While not setting requirements for member schools during the regular season, it suggests actions based on heat index – the degree of felt discomfort derived by combining temperature and humidity measurements – that are designed to minimize the risk of heat-related illness during interscholastic participation.

The policy is mandatory for all MHSAA tournaments beginning this school year, and the MHSAA plans to monitor schools’ adoption of the plan throughout the year to determine best policies moving forward.

Laminated cards containing the policy and heat index chart were printed and mailed to schools in June and continue to be disseminated at statewide meetings this fall. Two publications, Heat Ways and Safety Blitz, were published, mailed and posted to, heightening awareness of healthy practice regimens, and schools have been offered discounted psychrometer prices through the MHSAA to assist in their efforts to properly monitor weather conditions.

“This action was significant; but it’s just the next step in a continuous series of actions being taken to make school sports as healthy as possible for students,” said Roberts.

The MHSAA’s proactive movements toward a safer tomorrow are taking place concurrently, rather than sequentially. While the heat and humidity plan is the most developed of the four “thrusts,” other initiatives are underway. Today’s climate prompts such action.

From the NCAA’s new “targeting fouls” to the NFL’s “crown” rule, and of course Major League Baseball’s Biogenesis/PED debacle, the headlines off the field in August centered on protecting the games rather than simply playing them.  Like it or not, it’s the type of news fans need to get used to as their favorite sports audible to option plays in order to steer clear of the endangered species list.

The situation can’t be overstated. Athletics at all levels has been approaching a crossroads for years, and the time to heed the signals has come.

“Let’s make one thing abundantly clear: The people in charge of football at all levels are wise to craft rules that make the game safer, even if those rules will be controversial,” wrote Andy Staples for College Football on July 23.

The story continued: “As more information arrives about the long-term dangers of the headshots football players absorb at the high school, college and pro levels, something has to change. The next few years will be messy. The game needs saving, because if it continues as it has, it will get decimated by lawsuits and by parents of young children who decide the potential adverse effects aren’t worth the risk.”

When kids stop playing, numbers at the high school level and beyond are bound to diminish as well. To trumpet the vast benefits of interscholastic football while easing parents’ minds on safety concerns, the MHSAA formed a Football Task Force in the spring of 2013. The task force is the first of several to be convened during the next four school years, and the objectives of each are to promote the sports involved as safe, low-risk, competitive athletics through the development of  better practice policies and modification of playing rules.

“These task forces will be central to the overarching mission of preserving sports for years to come,” said Roberts. “We believe the MHSAA Football Task Force has set a foundation on which to build. Our discussions involving revised practice policies have reached the draft stage, and we intend to have formal proposals ready to present to the Representative Council in March 2014.”

The work of the 13-member task force – made up of football coaches and school administrators from around the state – will be reviewed by the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association, the MHSAA Football Committee and at the MHSAA League Leadership meeting for fine-tuning prior to reaching the Council.

“It is important that we provide opportunities for children to participate in interscholastic athletics and crucial that we do all we can to ensure they will be safe when they do,” said Football Task Force member Tammy Jackson, principal at East Jordan High School, who has a sports medicine background. “The MHSAA has taken an active role in promoting safety by convening the Task Force to examine current rules and consider modifications to further protect children.”


By ROB KAMINSKI, MHSAA benchmarks editor