Lawmakers aim to curb high school football injuries

Maria Carrillo running back Alex Netherda, right, is tackled during football practice on Aug. 22, 2013. A recently passed state bill would limit the amount of contact teams can have during practice. (ALVIN JORNADA / For The Press Democrat, 2013)

Maria Carrillo running back Alex Netherda, right, is tackled during football practice on Aug. 22, 2013. A recently passed state bill would limit the amount of contact teams can have during practice.
(ALVIN JORNADA / For The Press Democrat, 2013)


The image of prep football players hitting and tackling in practice day after day to prepare for gridiron rigors is as dated as helmets without masks, say Empire coaches.

Yet growing concern over concussions and head injuries has California lawmakers considering limits on full-contact practices during the season and banning them in the offseason, including popular summer camps.

California State Assembly member Ken Cooley (D-Rancho Cordova) introduced Assembly Bill 2127 in February. It was passed in the assembly last week, and now heads to the state senate for a vote.

The bill calls for:

Limiting full-contact practices to twice weekly and 90 minutes each during the preseason and regular season. Such drills would be prohibited during the offseason.

Prohibiting athletes suspected of sustaining a concussion or head injury from returning to play until being evaluated by a licensed health care provider trained in concussions. Those suffering such injuries must sit out a minimum seven days.

California Interscholastic Federation officials expect the proposal to become law.

“They had a very good bill. We just worked with them on massaging some of the language. We wanted to make sure whatever is done fits with how football practices are run,” said Ron Nocetti, who oversees football as the CIF associate executive director.

California’s top high school athletic officials support the move and are prepared to adopt rules to enforce such safeguards beginning in the 2015 season.

“It just makes sense. This is moving forward with guidelines that we think we need to have in place,” said Gil Lemmon, North Coast Section athletics commissioner.

Still, many coaches do not want to be told how to prepare players. Coaches contend they already are cautious in the amount of full contact drills to avoid injury and keep players fresh for weekly games.

“Why beat yourself up all week,” Tomales coach Leon Feliciano said.  “A lot of this is already in place. I think it’s overkill.”

Most teams save their hardest hits for games, coaches said.

“We do not tackle in practice and we only have contact during preseason the two weeks before our games start,” Casa Grande coach Trent Herzog said.

“We’re not a big physical, hitting team in practice. It saves the kids. Our kids are ready to play hard on Fridays.”

The bill follows restrictions on full-contact practices in college and professional football. Some NCAA conferences limit practices to twice weekly. The NFL only allows 14 full-contact practices during the regular season. The proposed limits for California high schools, however, largely follow reductions in the amount of hitting and tackling most teams do in practice, coaches say.

“Back in the old days, you hit a lot more. I think coaches have learned you don’t want your kids beat up,” Middletown coach Bill Foltmer said. “Now we work a lot of technique and you can get a lot worked out without full contact practices.”

A practice week for Middletown features tackling and blocking drills on Monday and Tuesday, with one day of full contact. Wednesday is scrimmaging with light contact and no tackling to the ground. Thursday is special teams and scout squad work. While little would change for Foltmer and his team under the state limits, the long-time coach for one of the Empire’s most successful small school programs bristles at the implication that coaches do not safeguard young athletes.

“You hire professional coaches and trust them to know when to back off,” Foltmer said.

Casa Grande has been an Empire large school power while saving most hitting for games. The only impact of the proposed limits is the Gauchos could not participate in full-contact camps colleges host in summer, Herzog said. “We use a lot of caution with head injuries. The safer we can make the game, the better,” he said.

Hitting and tackling for long practice periods is an outdated way to coach football, Cardinal Newman coach Paul Cronin said. For instance, the Cardinals spend more time with players reviewing film from scrimmages, he said.

“You want teachable moments. You want small groups to go over things,” Cronin said. “People learn there’s a lot more effective ways to coach then getting your head beat in.”

Even two days of full contact is excessive, Cronin said. The Cardinals run a few dozen snaps of full-contact drills, but do not tackle to the ground. The proposal at least establishes limits for coaches still tied to old-school ways, Cronin said. “In some areas there’s a lot of money at stake and winning is even more important,” Cronin said. “I think the proposal makes some clear rules for high school football. Coaches are being better educated on the effects of head injuries which is a good thing.”

Prep football must develop safeguards to keep pace with revelations about the effects of head injuries, Nocetti said. The seven-day requirement to sit out after suffering a concussion or other head injury is a conservative period, he said. “The typical adult needs seven days to recover. It’s usually much longer for an adolescent. A lot of our kids are being held out much longer and we think that’s a good thing,” Nocetti said.

Establishing specific rules and enforcing the limits would fall to the CIF, its sections and school officials.

The CIF football advisory committee already in place would likely help put together dos and don’ts to answer likely questions from coaches, officials said.

“The coaches have a voice,” Nocetti said. “They’re going to have much more of a comfort level when they see the direction of this.”

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