Georgia, Alabama pass new rules to limit amount of contact during practice
By DAVID MITCHELL
Central football coach Jamey DuBose has always erred on the side of keeping his players fresh deep into each football season.
He expressed on multiple occasions during the Red Devils run to the Class 7A quarterfinals last year that it was important to be healthy and fast at the end of the season to either give your team an advantage over an opponent, or to make sure that opponent doesn't have an advantage over you.
As a result, he said, his teams have never been the type to line up 11-on-11 and practice under full speed and full impact situations day in and day out.
Now, a version of that approach has been made official.
In an effort to limit exposure to concussions, both Alabama and Georgia adopted rules this past week that restrict the amount of contact players can have in practices, both in preseason and the regular season.
In Alabama, teams must ease their players into fall practice with two days in shorts and helmets, followed by shoulder pads and helmets on the third and fourth days, not exceeding 90 and 120 minutes, respectively. Weeks 2 and 3 allows alternating days of full-speed contact, not to exceed a combined total of 120 minutes per week. Week 4 through the end of the season allows just 90 minutes of full-speed contact per week.
Georgia adopted similar rules. Full contact is limited to 135 minutes per week on non
consecutive days during the preseason and 90 minutes, 30 minutes per practice, spread across three practices during the regular season.
The states are two of seven that have adopted a similar policy, promoted by the National Federation of High Schools. Arizona, Texas, Tennessee, Maryland and California are the others.
While coaches have expressed that there are still questions to be answered, no one who spoke to the Ledger-Enquirer about the changes expects much of a change in their approach to practice.
"The biggest thing is that I think there will be some questions and clarifications at our summer coaches conference," DuBose said. "I've had a lot of coaches call to get my opinion on what it means. For us, we don't usually go (full contact) two days in a row anyway. I bust those days up and we go shells a bunch during the year. I'm still under the firm belief that during a 15-week season, you have to limit practice to keep them fresh anyway. I don't think it'll be a major thing."
He said it was his belief that most coaches, who are more versed in head injuries today than they were in the past, adopt a similar approach.
Changes already made
Carver coach Joe Kegler said that the Tigers have been practicing smarter for years anyway, dating back to when former coach Dell McGee ran the program.
"We're not killing our players anyway," he said. "This just makes you teach the fundamentals more. What I mean by that is fundamentals without pads -- how to tackle, how to hit, all that stuff."
Harris County coach Dwight Jones said it would make only moderate changes to his practices because he, too, has tried to limit exposure to repeated hits in practice. His main concern, he said, is during the preseason and how quickly his players will be able to work themselves into playing shape.
How much, he wondered, would limiting full contact affect their fundamentals and speed come regular season.
"Everyone has to go full speed," he said. "If you're going half speed and the other guy is going full speed, you're going to take a lick and might get hurt. That's the thing I worry about more.
"The only way I can protect a kid in a game is to take him out.
"They have to be ready for that kind of punishment."
Georgia High School Association assistant director Tommy Whittle spoke for executive director Gary Phillips, who was out of the office this week, on that subject.
Whittle cited statistics in the other states who have adopted similar rules that indicated a decrease in the rate of concussions by half in practice and no significant change in game injuries.
"That right there should be enough," he said. "We're not satisfied with just half, but it's a step in the right direction."
Attempts to confirm that data with others states' athletic associations were unsuccessful.
Oversight a concern
The main concern agreed upon by each coach, though, was oversight.
How do state athletic associations ensure that all the teams are following the same rules?
The Georgia bylaw calls for coaches to keep practice plans and schedules on file for the entirety of the season, to be provided to the GHSA on request should a question arise.
Failure to adhere to the rules result in a $500-2500 fine per violation on the first offense, and probation and a postseason ban for the second.
"I don't think you'll see a lot of people willing to blatantly abuse this," Whittle said.
But Jones is still concerned.
"I'm not disagreeing with the rule," he said.
"With the way concussion research has evolved, they had to to do something.
"It's just who is going to make sure people are following this and are we maintaining a competitive balance?"
DuBose said he didn't know how a state association could really adequately oversee everything.
"I don't think there's any real way to monitor it," he said.
"Of course, with social media today, parents and kids will be knowledgeable. They can raise questions if they come up. It's one of those things that comes down to the coaches.
"I hope they all understand that this rule is a safety measure. We want our kids healthy."