The “war on football” has become a running narrative in today’s sports media — the safety of football is under fire from the NFL down to the smallest levels of youth league.
Making the game safer for the people who play it has become a stronger emphasis from the people who run football’s governing bodies, whether it’s the NCAA or state high school leagues. These organizations, like the GISA, have strict guidelines on how much contact can be had during the summer, what temperatures you can practice at in pads and limiting special teams at scrimmages.
However, there’s one recent rule change that has some GISA coaches up in arms.
“I feel like they are putting our players in a dangerous situation,” said Bulloch Academy head coach Terrence Hennessy.
It’s a hefty accusation to make against a high school league, but the organizations recent rule change to move their state title game up from the Friday before Thanksgiving to a whole week beforehand (November 18) has coaches like Hennessey sounding off.
“I’ll always err on the side of caution. I don’t take chances with kids' safety,” Hennessy said. “I don’t attend funerals.”
The safety issue in question is getting players acclimated to the punishing south Georgia heat, which sits in the high 90’s consistently from June through as late as September. The humidity can reach up to 98 percent and the dew point stays consistently muggy, so add all of that in with the temperatures and there is a cocktail of weather that could rival the jungles of Vietnam.
In 2015 it was reported by the MMQB, a blog run by Sports Illustrated, that 11 high school football players died the previous season — two of those deaths came from heat-related incidents. So organizations like the GISA have taken precautions to try and prevent these deaths and other health issues.
“We have strict rules over what teams can and can’t do when it comes to the heat,” said Clint Morgan, associate director of athletics for the GISA. “It’s all about player safety with us.”
According to Morgan, the main reason the state title game was moved up was to give the kids Thanksgiving week off. He also noted it was important for students to have enough time to get ready for finals and mentioned it would help attendance for the title game.
“We’re family oriented and want kids to spend their time with their families on Thanksgiving week,” Morgan said. “But we want them to be academically prepared as well.”
Getting back to the issue at hand, coaches like Hennessey claim they’re not getting enough time to acclimate their players to heat because of the title game move. For instance, on August 5 if the wet bulb thermometer says it’s too hot to practice in pads, teams must oblige. But a week later, “week zero” as it’s called by the GISA, no matter what the wet bulb says, teams will suit up and play their first regular season games of the year.
“We follow the wet bulb stuff all preseason, but not for the games,” Hennessey said. “Call me old school, but I just don’t know what it’s going to take.”
Week zero is an optional opening week for GISA teams who prefer to have a bye week in the middle of their season. Other teams can choose to start a week later on the traditional “week one”, but they sacrifice their bye week — a decision Hennessey opted out of for the first time in his Bulloch Academy tenure.
“I feel like it really hurt us near the end of the season not to have a bye week,” Hennessey said. “We were fatigued, not just physically but mentally — even our coaching staff was tired. So when it came time to do a new schedule my one thing was we’re going to have a bye week. So that means kicking off a little bit earlier.”
Morgan insisted week zero is completely optional, and the GISA leaves it up to teams to make this decision. However with that said, the title game being moved up has taken time off the front end of the preseason for GISA teams. There is no extra week of preseason to make up for the loss of a week on the back end of the playoffs.
“No doubt we’re losing a week to get acclimated to the heat,” said Pinewood Academy head coach Keith Wasson. “Honestly I didn’t see anything wrong with the way it was before. If it isn’t broke then why try to fix it?”
Pinewood and Bulloch Academy are both in Region 2 of Class AAA, whose representative on the GISA athletic committee is BA athletic director Chandler Dennard. When a decision is made on matters such as these, the athletic committee works in conjunction with GISA heads to make a final vote. These representatives will consult to AD’s and coaches on these decisions if they deem it necessary.
“We factored our gate, relationship with other state independent school associations among other things when we made this decision,” Dennard said. “Coaches gave us their opinion and we took it into consideration, but in the end we did what we felt was best for the GISA.”
Morgan, who coached at Bulloch Academy for 12 years before he took up his post at GISA, says if he put his coaching shoes back on he wouldn’t have a problem with the decision. In the end, he believes the GISA gives teams and players plenty of time to get acclimated to the sweltering Georgia heat.
“Some coaches may feel handcuffed,” Morgan said. “But in the end players will get acclimated to the heat and I believe our coaches do a great job looking out for their safety.”
No matter how coaches feel about the decision, GISA is going forward with it in what they’re calling a “trial year” for the title game move. As for what happens next year, it’ll depend on how things go in this trial run.
“We’re very excited about the decision and we’re looking forward to see how it turns out,” Morgan said.