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The Changing Landscape of High School Football in Alabama-Player Safety and Legal Concerns

The following is one of a series of articles on the top ten latest trends in prep football in Alabama.

Coaching high school football is a unique experience that requires success in order to keep your job. A head football coach also is responsible for the health and safety of each player, as well as protecting himself, his school and his staff from claims of negligence.

After the NFL became involved in concussion litigation, they agreed to educate college and high school football coaches and players about the effects of concussions. It brought much attention to the subject and caused high school athletic associations to adopt rules concerning concussion protocols and contact limitations at practice. The AHSAA was one of the first associations to do so in 2013. The new rules limited 11 on 11 live action in practice with a time limitation per week as well as not allowing such contact on consecutive days. It regulated full contact in spring practice as well. There was great concern about this from coaches, particularly the veteran coaches. "They are trying to take the toughness out of football" was a common cry heard from the coaching profession. But coaches were able to adjust their practice procedures to go along with the new rules and learned to live with it.

Distinguishing whether a player had possibly suffered a concussion or not was another issue. Once a player was in concussion protocol, he could not play again until cleared by a licensed physician. Players with heat issues or who might become very fatigued during practice or games sometimes became disoriented but had not suffered a concussion. This became another land mine for head coaches and most decided to stay on the side of caution and assume that the player had been concussed.

Coaches must also keep their staffs up with the latest information. The National Federation of High Schools has provided courses for coaches that have helped with that education. The state of Alabama has a concussion law that requires coaches to get training on dealing with concussions on a yearly basis.

Heat illness and prevention was an issue that all coaches had to deal with, especially in south Alabama. This was nothing new. Coaches had been using heat preventative methods and education for their teams for many years. The Korey Stringer Institute issued guidelines that they wanted all state high school associations to adopt. The AHSAA developed its own set of policies for coaches to follow. They limited two a day practices and required a certain amount of rest in between those workouts. These guidelines also required two days in shorts and two days in shells before the first padded practice, and limited the length of those practices during the first week of drills. Coaches in our state did become much more educated on recognizing the signs of heat illness. Many coaches created additional preventative measures for players including shady cool areas with ice tubs.

With the creation of Zero week, teams were able to play pre season or even a regular season game a week earlier than normal. This concerned a number of veteran coaches, particularly those from south Alabama where the humidity off of the Gulf of Mexico can extend throughout many of the southern counties. "We have no business playing high school football games in the middle of August. It is entirely too hot," one 40 year coaching veteran said. But Zero week gave coaches more flexibility in scheduling, and they certainly liked that.

All of the new rules surrounding practice were a real concern for most coaches. Most were pretty set in their ways about how they practiced. "When it was all said and done," one 3A coach explained, "we just made a few adjustments to what we were doing with practice and it wasn't that big of a deal. The AHSAA did a good job of giving us all some flexibility in setting up our practices."

Over the last 10 years, athletic trainers have become more plentiful in school athletic programs. First class trainers provide coaches with an enormous amount of help. They are able to deal with the injured player, get him treated by an orthopedic physician and keep in contact with the parents. Trainers were great help in dealing with the concussion and heat illness issues and providing coaching staffs with the knowledge to use all types of preventative measures. Some older coaches had a bigger adjustment period with trainers, particularly if the trainer tended to be soft with the players are minor ailments. All in all, athletic trainers have been a big help dealing with the continual battle with over protective parents and legal issues with injuries. Their presence at games and practices take a big load off of the high school coach.

Proper tackling procedures have also become a real legal issue. Many coaches have changed their language and drills for teaching tackling. Today, players work on many tackling drills in summer in just shorts and helmets. Coaches have learned to be more creative with teaching this skill and less physical in drills.

The AHSAA worked hard at insisting that all schools have Emergency Management Plans and that they practice those plans with staff and players. Coaches who did so gave an extra layer of legal protection to their school systems should there be a need for such a plan. Negligence concerns in dealing with all of the health and safety issues surrounding the game of football have become an important part of the job of the head football coach.

The Covid pandemic forced all of the state's coaches to pay much more attention to the details of cleanliness. Cleaner locker rooms, hydration methods at games and practices, and cleaning off weights and benches with antiseptic cleaners are just some of the details that coaches had to deal with daily to keep the virus away from his team. "We took time to do some things I never thought we would do," a 6A coach stated. "Educating players and even coaches about how the virus spreads became an important part of keeping our team functioning." Covid taught all coaches the importance of creating a plan and expecting to have to change it half way through. Patience and flexibility became key to success in high school football coaching.

Health and safety concerns have become a huge part of being a head football coach, and the Covid issues have put even more pressure on the man that leads the team. Today, coaches must adhere to all of the rules and regulations, keep their players safe every day and protect their school systems from litigation. Oh yeah, they better win plenty of games as well.


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