Even on the football field, lessons in physics are inescapable. When two football players collide, the force can equal that of a head smashing against a wall at 20 mph. Hits that serious can cause concussions or more serious brain injuries.
If national averages hold true, about 8,000 of the 168,000 high school football players in Texas will be diagnosed with concussions each year, and untold numbers more will suffer head injuries that aren’t discovered.
“There are a number of horror stories out there about concussions,” said state Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville. “There’s got to be a balance of continuing to play the game at an optimal level and providing safety for the kids.”
Having already successfully pushed laws to make helmets safer and compel schools to safely treat concussions, Lucio has now filed legislation to reduce violent collisions in high school and middle school football by restricting full-contact practices to just one per week.
Right now, the University Interscholastic League — which oversees extracurricular activities for Texas’ public schools — has rules limiting full-contact practices during the off-season. Once the season begins, however, full-contact practices are allowed at all times during the 8 hours a week teams may practice. The UIL set up a program to address concussions in 2005 and has been actively updating it to fit recommendations from its medical board, which receives injury information from selected schools but doesn’t keep statewide concussion statistics.
Lucio cites a Purdue University study finding that repeated blows to the head still change brain activity, even if the individual hits aren’t that serious. Researchers assert that repetitive hits, not just one strong blow, can lead to concussions. By decreasing full-contact practices, Lucio said he hopes to limit those blows and give the brain the proper time to heal.
“If you don’t allow (a) muscle or bone to heal, it’s going to break,” he said. “The same thing is relative to the brain. It can only heal itself at a certain rate, and any additional hits could cause more damage.”
Lucio is still refining his definition of “full-contact” and plans to meet with football coaches this weekend to hash out details of the bill.
Some coaches, however, are concerned that fewer full-contact practices could actually increase concussion risks.
Practicing the fundamentals of safe tackling helps build muscle memory, and athletes can benefit from repetition, said Joe Willis, head football coach and athletic coordinator at Cedar Park High School.
“If you only practice those (fundamentals) once a week, you are moving in the opposite direction of what logic would tell you,” he said. “A kid can’t learn without the experimentation phase.”
Coach of last year’s Class 4A Division II state champions, Willis said Lucio’s bill might be a politically smart move from someone who has never played the game, but he fears it would limit the ability of coaches to teach proper fundamentals.
“I’ve always felt like good coaching prevents those things,” Willis said. “…If you have one day (of full-contact practice), and you go out there with bad technique on that one day, you might get a concussion anyway.”
Not all football coaches share Willis’ concerns. Lake Travis High School head coach Hank Carter said that his team already doesn’t tackle players to the ground during regular season practice to limit injuries.
Concussion awareness has taken center stage over the past few years as more stories about brain injuries trickle out from former players. Former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson shot himself in the chest in 2011 to preserve his brain for science. Autopsies of Duerson and other former players found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease linked to brain trauma.
Both the NFL and the Ivy League agreed to limit full-contact practices in 2011 in reaction to public outcry over player safety. The NFL allows only 14 for the entire regular season, the Ivy League two per week. Lucio said he believes that stringent protective measures like these should be in place for the youngest athletes who haven’t finished physical development and don’t have the ability to lobby for themselves.
“We can’t sacrifice (students’) physical or mental health long term,” he said. “It’s got to be a healthy marriage between the two, which is a safe environment to play in but to still play the game like it’s meant to be played.”