GHSA changes prep football practice rules for all teams

Although Dougherty County’s public school football teams have operated under a stringent set of practice rules when it comes to dangerous heat for years, the GHSA mandated all schools follow new ones this week. (Herald file photo)

Although Dougherty County’s public school football teams have operated under a stringent set of practice rules when it comes to dangerous heat for years, the GHSA mandated all schools follow new ones this week. (Herald file photo)

ATLANTA — In response to a University of Georgia study that found increases in player deaths nationwide in recent years, Georgia is banning three-a-day football practices and will fine schools that violate rules aimed at keeping student-athletes from succumbing to heat.

And that’s just fine with Dougherty County Director of Athletics Johnny Seabrooks, who says it’s about time.

“We were (ahead of the curve) on this, and (we here in Dougherty County) have already had a system in place for the last five to seven years,” Seabrooks said Wednesday. “But now the (Georgia High School Association) has set guidelines for this to be consistent throughout the state, whereas a few years ago they made the decision to address it, but let every county handle it on a local level. Now, everyone is on the same page.”

The GHSA decided this week to establish the new guidelines for schools statewide, including requiring players to go through five practices in only helmets, shirts and shorts before going to full pads Aug. 1.

The governing body for public school sports in Georgia also mandated that two-a-day practices can’t occur on consecutive days or exceed five hours in a single day; and practicing in pads is limited to three hours a day.

But the decision to also require all schools to cancel practices of GHSA-sanctioned sports when the temperature reaches a certain point is one Seabrooks feels should’ve been made long ago, just like the Dougherty County School Board did on its own.

“Our heat index (of 105 degrees) has been lower than other counties across the state for years because our position has always been that we need to protect our athletes, first and foremost, above all else,” he said. “Now, every school will have the same instrument (and set temperature) in determining when it’s not safe.”

When the GHSA handed down the decision a few years ago to let each county decide on its own how to handle dangerous heat indexes, Seabrooks took it to heart and ordered temperature-measuring instruments called psychrometers for all Dougherty County middle and high schools.

A psychrometer is an instrument used for measuring the water vapor content of the atmosphere and consists of two thermometers which can accurately determine what the true temperature is in the atmosphere when combining such factors as dry heat (sun index) and wet heat (humidity).

The DCSB set the “danger zone” temperature at 105 degrees — and that included all Dougherty County school-related activities, not just sports.

“If you just went by what the GHSA — which just deals with sports, and not all school-related activities — was saying, that meant I could have football and cross country teams calling off practices when it’s too hot, while across the field we could have the band marching around in (sweltering heat) because they’re not governed by the GHSA,” Seabrooks said. “So our board made it for all activities. It was the right thing to do.”

However, Seabrooks said the new GHSA guidelines set for schools across the state are more strict than ever after UGA researchers found that heat-related deaths among football players across the country tripled to nearly three per year between 1994 and 2009 after averaging about one per year the previous 15 years. The University of Georgia also reported that overall, Georgia led the nation in deaths with seven fatalities. Two Georgia prep football players alone died this past August.

And because of that, psychrometers are now out and each school will be required to purchase a new, more advanced instrument to measure local heat index called a “global wet bulb thermometer,” and that the new “danger zone” temperature — according to the global wet bulb thermometer — will now be 92 degrees. Seabrooks said because the new guidelines were just handed down this week, he has yet to purchase the new instruments for schools but has already priced them.

“They range is from about $150 to $200. We will buy one for each middle and high school in Dougherty County, but if those schools have teams that practice in more than one place — for example, if the football team practices at the school but the cross country team practices off campus somewhere else — then that school will have to purchase a second one to measure the heat index at that alternate site,” Seabrooks said. “I haven’t gotten a lot of reaction (locally) from our coaches yet except that many were surprised at how much lower the cutoff temperature is (under the new guidelines compared to the old one that we set ourselves). But with this new global wet bulb instrument, it remains to be seen the difference in the way it and the psychrometer measures. For all we know, it could be close to the 105-degree temperature mark we set before. We’re just going to have to wait and see how they compare when we get the new wet bulb thermometers. We’re hoping it’s close because we feel like the guidelines Dougherty County has had in place for those five to seven years I mentioned have worked.”

Seabrooks added that the current protocol for determining whether to cancel practice before school lets out each day won’t change.

“By about 2 p.m., (our athletic staff) will take a reading at each school and if the heat index is too high at that time, all practices for that school will be canceled. And it will be different for each school. After all, it could be hot and sunny at Westover but it might be cloudy and raining a little at Monroe (the way the weather is in this region) during the fall,” he said. “And if around 2 p.m. the temperature isn’t at the cancelling point, we’ll allow practices to go forward, but instruct each coach to continually check it throughout, just like we did with the psychrometers.”

Georgia is the latest state to adopt the recommendations from a task force spearheaded by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association. Other states that have adopted similar rules in the last year include Connecticut, New Jersey, Texas and North Carolina.

“Our previous research shows heat illness rates are highest in the Southeast,” said Michael Ferrara, professor of kinesiology and associate dean for research in UGA’s College of Education, who co-directed the study with Bud Cooper, associate department head for the department of kinesiology.

Researcher Andrew Grundstein says he was surprised that more than half the deaths occurred during morning practices, when temperatures are generally cooler. But he said the research found that it’s often very humid in the morning, which increases heat stress on players.

UGA researchers found that high school student-athletes need about 10-14 days to acclimate their bodies to the heat stress in preseason practices in late July and August. They say that gradually adjusting to these conditions can help minimize the risk of injury to student-athletes.

The GHSA’s new plan, however, does not apply to any of the state’s private schools, which are governed by the Georgia Independent School Association (GISA). And Deerfield-Windsor athletic director Gordy Gruhl said Wednesday that there could be future talk about developing a GISA-wide plan for its school because currently there isn’t one, and each school is responsible for its own.

“It’s up to each school to turn in a heat-related plan, and currently we use a (psychrometer) for determining what’s safe and what isn’t. We researched a plan a few years ago and looked at what other schools were doing, then we adopted our own,” Gruhl said. “Right now, the GISA does not have a plan for all its schools to follow, and I’m on the state athletic board so I would know if there’s been talk of (formulating) one. But that’s not to say there won’t be one in the future with the GHSA doing what they’re doing. We may very well do the same.”

That’d be music to Seabrooks’ ears, who says he has made it his personal mission not to have any student-athlete become ill — or possibly even die — on his watch.

“I was the happiest guy out there when the GHSA came up with this plan that all schools must follow, because now everyone’s on the same page,” he said. “(It may not be ideal for coaches trying to get in practice time), but my thing is that if it keeps even one child from dying, it’s all going to be worth it.”

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.