Football is a sport that prides itself on toughness. From the first day of rec-league practice to a pregame speech before the Super Bowl, coaches will preach staying strong, finishing the drill, and being determined to ‘want it more’ than the opponent.
Not that there is anything wrong with that, but when outside conditions make those virtues less of a competitive quality and more of a flirtation with serious health hazards, we’ve got a big problem.
Beginning last Thursday and continuing through the weekend, dozens of Georgia high schools kicked off their seasons in scorching heat.
At one point, a game near Albany had to be delayed as the artificial surface of the field reached 130 degrees. Games were scheduled to begin in the middle of the afternoon and during early evening hours — easily the hottest portions of the day — and teenage kids were expected to be at their best in those conditions, weighed down by helmets and pads that created an even more uncomfortable environment.
In many aspects, the controlling bodies of high school sports in Georgia have done a good job of protecting players from hazardous conditions during the hot days that accompany the beginning of football season.
A standardized system is in place for all schools that mandates the length of time and the amount of equipment that can be worn on a given day depending on heat conditions. This has likely saved many teenagers from overexerting themselves and suffering from heat exhaustion or heat stroke — both of which can have long lasting detrimental effects on the body.
But there’s one huge problem with this system — it isn’t in effect during games.
For all the concern that is shown during practices, almost all regulations go out the window when it’s time for a game which features even more intensity and length than any drill leading up to game day.
When players aren’t even allowed to go through conditioning exercises outdoors on many days, it’s hard not to think that holding an actual game in even more extreme conditions isn’t setting these kids up for potential danger.
On Friday night, a short-handed First Presbyterian Christian Academy had to push itself to the brink just to get through four quarters of play against Bulloch Academy. In the fourth quarter alone, play was stopped half a dozen times for players suffering for cramps and other ailments that seemed related to exhaustion.
Just up the road in Millen, two Montgomery County players had to be attended to for heat-related issues by medical personnel. Even those in attendance weren’t safe as the EMTs at the Bulloch Academy twice had to help FPCA fans having trouble with the hot and humid night.
The next day, Coffee and North Oconee took the field for a 5 p.m. kickoff at Paulson Stadium with a game time heat index of 108 degrees.
No amount of extended timeouts or extra water breaks could change the fact that — if it had been a scheduled practice instead of a game — neither team would have put on helmets, pads, or even run sprints outdoors.
There’s no easy fix to this.
We can’t just turn down the heat and no one is about to start scheduling kickoffs for midnight. But perhaps it’s time to start thinking about pushing back the start of football season.
The sort of dangerous heat experienced last weekend likely won’t last much longer, but a short time span of potential danger is no excuse for continuing to press on when the health of teenage kids is at stake.
In a system that cares enough for these athletes to limit what they can be subjected to from Monday through Thursday, it seems irresponsible to close the blinds on those safety measures on Friday night.
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9408.