Vermont schools OK football safety rules

ADDISON COUNTY — The Vermont Principals’ Association has signed onto a national initiative that makes mandatory for the state’s 32 high school football programs measures intended to make the sport safer.
Vermont joined Oregon as the only states to insist that all football playing high schools enroll in USA Football’s Heads Up program. But according to a VPA press release more than 1,100 high schools around the country already participate in a program that uses the most current practices for enhanced player safety, while 24 state athletic directors’ or coaches’ associations support it.
In Vermont, Middlebury Union High School started the Heads Up program a year ago, and other schools including Otter Valley, Colchester and Rutland, had already adopted it.
MUHS Activities Director Sean Farrell, also the chairman of the VPA Football Committee, said the VPA’s move will not only protect athletes, but also reassure their parents and guardians.
“I think it will be very helpful as far as teaching proper technique, but also (giving) a sense for the families that we’re doing all we can do to make it as safe as possible. This is the best practice out there,” Farrell said. “It’s about having our kids having fun and being as safe as possible.”
Results from Heads Up alone have shown some positive results, but according to a July 28 New York Times article USA Football’s claimed benefits in 30 percent concussion reduction and 76 percent injury reductions from the Heads Up program did not materialize.
According to the Times’ review of a 2015 study, “The drop in practice injuries among Heads Up Football-only leagues was 63 percent, but combined with in-game injuries, the total reduction became about 45 percent,” not 76 percent as had been claimed. (The article may be found at http://tinyurl.com/h5xjucw.)
Vermont does have a mandatory concussion protocol already in place.
The Heads Up program requires that every year each program designate a coach to take a course to learn to become its “Player Safety Coach,” and that all coaches take annual online courses that focus on:
• Concussion recognition and response.
• Heat preparedness and hydration.
• Sudden cardiac arrest.
• Proper equipment fitting.
• Safe “heads up” blocking and tackling.
Vermont already has its concussion protocols, plus a heat/humidity index that if exceeded requires practices to cease and mandates game breaks, and a requirement for an athletic trainer to be onsite for all football games.
But Farrell, who said Tiger head coach Dennis Smith and assistant John Nuceder took the Player Safety Course, believes the USA Football program will improve on those measures, starting with equipment fitting.
“You would be surprised how many coaches have zero training in how to fit a helmet, other than how their coaches put it on their head,” he said. “It’s not one size fits all. You have to tweak it and make sure you have the right size cheek pads in, and the brow pad, and (the pads in) the back of the helmet.”
Athletes will be taught not to lead with their heads while tackling or blocking, although Farrell acknowledged that game officials will not enforce those techniques.
That’s where the Player Safety Coaches come in, he said, making sure the safer methods are continually emphasized in practices. According to a VPA press release, USA Football will train those coaches to “guide, direct and monitor the program’s implementation as well as lead in-person training” for fellow coaches and players.
“That’s the person who’s going to go for the hands-on training and translate it to our coaches. As far as enforcing, all we’re trying to do is use the same terminology, and same kind of methodology, and hopefully our student-athletes will follow suit,” Farrell said. “Repetition is a good way to learn, and we try to hammer it home over and over again.”
New Mount Abraham Athletic Director Devin Wendel, also a certified athletic trainer and like Farrell a former high school football player, sees the benefit to more comprehensive education. All coaches must also take all the courses except the Player Safety Course before licensure to work with a high school football program.
“The best thing it does it is gets everybody on the same page,” Wendel said. “The education piece is huge … Before it was just do your first aid, do your concussion and do your fundamentals of coaching, and you’re good, you can coach football.”
Wendel, who said Eagle head coach Lee Hodsden and assistant Gary Russell both took the Player Safety Course, sees the USA Football program as an ideal way to introduce young coaches to high school football. 
“When you get that alumni who graduated four or five years ago, he’s back from college, he really wants to coach, he was a great football player and he wants to start up, at least now we have this great intro educational piece,” he said.
Farrell expects some teams to embrace the Heads Up program immediately, but also acknowledges there could be resistance from some quarters.
“Anytime you mandate change, obviously people push back. You know, ‘I don’t need to do this. It was fine when I played,’” Farrell said. “But the game is different, faster. Kids are bigger than 20 years ago. And the education on concussions is hugely different than when I played 30 years ago. But we’re all becoming more educated, and we have to let go of the old-school mentality of, ‘Kids are wimpier these days and blah, blah, blah.’ No. We’re trying to keep them safe, and we know more now than we ever did.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]

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