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GHSA rule changes made to increase safety
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    In a few months, football teams from schools throughout the state will hit the field for summer workouts. The scorching Georgia heat can’t be avoided, but recent rule changes made by the Georgia High School Association aim to keep all players as safe as possible.
    Last season, three football players died from heat-related causes, and Georgia leads the nation in heat-related deaths over the last 15 years.
    Main highlights of the new rules — agreed upon at the monthly GHSA meeting in Macon on March 19 — include restrictions on extended practice days and a new schedule that must be followed before players can practice in full pads. Schools will no longer be allowed to hold three-a-day practices, and two-a-day practices cannot be held on consecutive days. Additionally, all players must go through five days of practice in only helmets and shoulder pads before practicing in full pads.
    Many schools, including Statesboro High, already have rules that are very similar to the new mandates.
    “A few years ago, the GHSA asked schools to come up with guidelines to go by as to how we dealt with the heat,” SHS athletics director Ken LeCain said. “I think that a lot of schools have a system in place that works, but these new rules will also make it easier for the association to regulate exactly what is going on.”
    In the coming months, the GHSA is expected to elaborate on the new rules, providing more specific guidelines as to what precautions must be taken to protect players from the heat.
    One new mandate will be the use of wet bulb thermometers to monitor the conditions on the practice field. While regular thermometers show only the air temperature, a wet bulb reading also takes into account humidity — something that can take a heavy toll during summer afternoons.
    If readings get too high, teams will have to remove pads or possibly get off the field to rest in a shaded area.
    “From what I’ve seen, the wet bulb can read about 10 degrees higher,” SHS athletics trainer Tim Ussery said. “It gives us a better idea of just how much the weather might be affecting guys out on the field.”
    For all of the measures that are being taken to keep players out of the worst conditions, the new rules actually allow fall practice to begin six days earlier. In the past, Aug. 1 was the first day that pads could be worn on the field. Now, July 25 is the earliest that teams can suit up — albeit with the caveat that only helmets and shoulder pads can be worn for the first five days.
    This is to help players acclimate to the rough conditions. Much like adjusting to the high altitude before climbing a mountain, running around in minimal padding will leave players better suited for later dates in full gear.
    But for all of the precautions that will be taken, the fact remains that teams have a lot of work to do in the few weeks of full-pad practices leading up to the regular season.
    Keeping players cool is one way to keep them safe, but a lack of preparation can lead to other issues down the road.
    “Obviously, our main focus is keeping everyone safe,” LeCain said. “But there’s still a season to prepare for. Everyone is going to be walking a razor’s edge to be careful of the heat, but also be ready to compete.”
    LeCain and Ussery both agreed that awareness on the players’ part is also necessary to stay as safe as possible during the hottest days of the summer.
    Ussery stressed the importance of getting plenty of food to eat and continuing to drink and rest well after practices
    “Dehydration is the biggest danger,” Ussery said. “Just drinking during water breaks isn’t enough to totally rehydrate you.”
    Ussery added that the mandates on two-a-day practices not being allowed to be held on consecutive days will be a big help.
    “It just takes so much out of players," he said. "We weigh all of our players, and if they have lost a certain percentage of weight, we make sure to get them the water and rest that they need.”
    In the end, there is no perfect solution to heat-related dangers of high school football. The Georgia summers will always be scorching and no amount of planning and precaution can keep the thermometer from inching toward 100 degrees.
    Vigilance will be the biggest weapon against additional tragedies, and the GHSA hopes that its new rules will be enough to keep eyes on the field instead of the weather forecast.
    Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.