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National Editorial & Columnists

Longer, hotter football seasons require more safety precautions

You can add the name Jordan McNair to the list of college, high school and middle school players who might have needlessly died for the love of football.

A simple, well-known procedure – immersing McNair, 19, in a tub of ice water – when he collapsed at an off-season University of Maryland workout in May could well have saved his life.

But it didn’t happen. This failure drew national attention to how unprepared many football programs are to keep their players safe.

The focus on concussions can obscure the deaths that continue to occur each year. Last year, 13 high school and college players died from incidents that include heat stroke, head injuries and sudden cardiac arrest.

Just two weeks ago in Crowley, Texas, Kyrell McBride-Johnson, 13, collapsed at a middle school practice and died that night. His mother told The Dallas Morning News that he was signaling for water before collapsing. An autopsy has not been completed, but the death of anyone so young raises troubling questions.

The simple truth is that player safety at too many schools and colleges comes in a poor second to winning. Even as the climate warms, colleges, high schools and middle schools are starting football season earlier than they used to.

Five decades ago, Notre Dame and Michigan opened their seasons on the third Saturday of September and Ohio State on the fourth Saturday. This year, spurred by longer seasons and lucrative TV schedules, all three teams played their first game Sept. 1, necessitating practices in midsummer heat. High schools and middle schools mimic the college schedules. (In 1968, the NFL season began on Sept. 14; this year, it kicked off Sept. 6.)

Starting the season later could by itself reduce the number of heat stroke deaths. But even with the current schedule, schools know how to prevent potentially fatal incidents and to rescue students if they occur. In 2013, more than a dozen leading sports medicine groups and the National Federation of State High School Associations endorsed a list of best practices to prevent injuries and save lives.

Grading states against that list and other smart practices, the University of Connecticut’s Korey Stringer Institute found that 28 states have failed to put in place half the measures to keep students safe. Even the states that scored highest in the 2018 study – New Jersey and North Carolina – have less than 80 percent in place. California and Colorado, with the worst records, employ less than a third of them.

That’s inexcusable. If states have the wherewithal to run high school football programs, they have the wherewithal to do more to ensure that students don’t die.

Many of the policies are based on common sense and carry minimal costs. Preventing heat stroke, for example, requires players in hot weather to acclimate: no more than one practice a day, and no practice lasting more than three hours. But the majority of states don’t require this, according to Douglas Casa, the Stringer Institute’s CEO. Nor do all states require cold-water immersion tubs be on hand; a tub costs about $150, can be purchased at a hardware store, and is known to save lives. Many don’t have an emergency plan posted on the field and known to all school staff.

And just a handful require an athletic trainer on site for all “collision/contact” practices. Yes, this costs some money, but if a school can afford to maintain a football field and pay for coaches, insurance, uniforms and travel, the cost of a single staff member with medical training is not too much to ask.

More than 110 years ago, after at least 18 college players died during a single season, President Theodore Roosevelt saved the game by pressing for common-sense safety measures.

Today, everyone knows what the solutions are. It’s long past time for state athletic officials and lawmakers to act.

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