PBS Frontline aired "Football High" on Tuesday night, an episode of the documentary series chronicling the way high school football has grown physically and psychologically in this country and how new research into injuries, particularly head traumas, may change the face of the game as we know it. If you missed it, you can stream it free onlinehere
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Maybe it says something about how much anyone close to sport already knows and doesn't seem to act on that very little if anything in the episode was news to me. That said, it was as good an introduction to the topic of what I suppose can only be called the football health crisis as someone can get in 60 minutes.
As I wrote about in last summer's concussion series, which can still be found here, it's been found that these low-impact, pain-free, non-concussion hits may well be the worst. And as some experts such as Chris Nowinski, whom I spoke to for the concussion series, detailed, the signs of damage from these hits are showing up in the brains of former athletes, including some very young ones. If you haven't read about CTE, how it leads to dementia and, before that, violent actions and sometimes suicide, read up on it in the third concussion story I wrote here. It's some seriously frightening stuff and will definitely make you think differently about even minor head injuries.
It was nice, too, to see the producers catch some of the denial that surrounds head injuries. At one point, a Shiloh player comes off the field after taking a hard hit to the head and insists he's fine and remembers everything that just happened. Then they cut to the kid later and he says he was saying that to his coach and trainer because he didn't want them to think he had a concussion. If the sort of crippling injuries and brain swelling associated with back-to-back concussions is ever going to get weeded out, the entire culture around sports needs to get honest with itself. I talked to several former college and pro athletes who suffered concussions for my series and each of them said they only learned later how important it is to be honest about the symptoms, even if it means possibly missing playing time.
The portion of the episode about the two Arkansas high school players who suffered heat stroke was painful to watch. You almost wonder how more kids aren't hurt of killed practicing in August. But that brought up a couple of important points. First, Arkansas - and I'll guess many other states - don't have athletic associations or local/state laws that require schools hire an athletic trainer, something that was missing at the school where the the athlete later died. Locally, the Hughston Clinic does a nationally recognized level of service with kids here, and the schools are very lucky.
And the Muscogee County and Phenix City schools, as I wrote about in the concussion series, have some specific protocol in place that includes having trainers present. MCSD also has a concussion policy in which an athlete deemed to have head trauma by a trainer or coach cannot return to play until cleared by a medical professional. If he or she has a concussion, there's a waiting period wherein the athlete must show no symptoms for a certain number of days before returning. And in Phenix City, they have a pretty nifty computer system that they use to test athletes pre- and post-concussion so they can determine the ways the injury might still be affecting them.
I take some issue with Frontline saying there is no national organization regulating high schools and how they deal with concussions when the National Federation of High School Associations, which is home to every state's major association including the GHSA and AHSAA, has concussion guidelines that went into effect last year. They're a little vague, but the only real tweak to be made by each state's association is determining whether a nurse, trainer or doctor has to clear an athlete before returning to play.
The peripheral issues
The episode also briefly hit on all the examples of exactly what I think is wrong with high school football, namely the way it has turned into a marketing game with intense recruiting and goals set unnecessarily high.
There was one Shiloh player whose parents lived out of state and not only must have paid for his tuition but rented an apartment in Arkansas so that he could qualify to attend school there.
Shiloh QB and Auburn signee Kiehl Frazier has a marketing guy. Seriously, a marketing guy. And they briefly show Frazier making a promo video for, well, himself with fog machines and cheerleaders.
I'm sure it's an insanely cool experience for those Shiloh kids to have played in Cowboys Stadium and on national television, but these are high school kids. I talk to them every day, and most of the ones being recruited by colleges are like deer in headlights. They're 16, 17, 18 years old, and that's how they should feel when Nick Saban calls the house. But take this from someone who makes his living covering high school sports - the coverage of recruiting gets borderline predatory, and I've even heard college coaches say it's sort of a frustrating cycle no one seems able to break. A recruiting reporter hypes up a kid who is getting rave reviews from Coach A. Coach B, who doesn't want to lose a possible gem, starts recruiting him only because Coach A is. The reporter writes about that, Coach C sees it. Now the kid has three scholarship offers, and Coach A sees that via reports and has to amp up his recruiting tactics and the cycle starts all over. Then fans get wind of it and start mentioning the kid's name online and the coach gets wind of that and now knows his fans are going to raise Cain if that kid isn't on the roster next opening day. It's really kind of Kafkaesque.
"These are 16-, 17-year-old kids who have to meet the demands of a rabid fanbase," rivals.com recruiting analyst Dallas Jackson said on the episode.
And I cringed when the father of the Shiloh head coach and the pastor at a mega church that runs the school said they started the football program in the '90s with the goal of becoming the best in the nation. This really throws me for a loop for a couple of reasons.
First, this sounds too much like a business idea to me. If you're going to start a high school football team, it should be because kids want to play football. Athletics at the high school level are at their core about keeping kids in school and giving them something to channel their energies into. If you're lucky, you're good enough to get a free college education out of it. And a few might even get rich in the NFL. But 99.99 percent of the kids who go through any given school won't play at college or go pro and you're perverting what high school sports are if you think you're going to make that kind of machine out of your program.
Second, how does any program even begin to lay claim to being the best in the nation? Every state in the country has teams in classifications, so for instance in Georgia there are five state champions each in a different class based on school enrollment size. The level of parity between those schools in any given state is probably noticeable, and so when you go to the national level, without a national tournament, how do you even really know when you're there? Because you convinced some guys at rivals.com and scout.com that you're the best and they vote you so in their poll? If you're a tiny private school, good luck. Striving for a state championship is really the highest team goal a high school team should have.
So that's my two cents. Overall I thought it was a well-produced episode and a great primer on the topic for anyone who doesn't yet know who Alan Schwarz is.
What'd you think of the episode? What'd you think of my take on it?