By Brad Fauber
A proposed amendment to the Code of Virginia that seeks to tighten the handling of concussions by the Virginia Board of Education has left a few local high school athletic directors and football coaches shaking their heads.
Section 22.1-271.5 of the code currently details guidelines required of the state Board of Education when it comes to dealing with student-athletes and concussions, but the amendment, proposed by Senator David W. Marsden, D-37th, last Friday, would require the Board to "provide a limitation on the amount of contact experienced by student-athletes playing contact sports."
The issue of concussions in sports -- football, especially -- is certainly a subject worthy of attention, but some people, such as Central Athletic Director Kenny Rinker, wonder if it's the General Assembly's job to police the issue.
"I'm concerned about the fact that our general assembly has nothing better to do than dabble in sports medicine," Rinker said. "That's why we have people in the [Virginia] High School League and other committees."
The proposed amendment, which is currently being reviewed by the Committee on Education and Health, goes on to mention football in particular, stating "football practice shall be limited to two contact practices per week through the first four games of the season, and shall be limited to one contact practice per week through the remainder of the season and in any post-season play."
Limiting the number of practices in which a team can run full-contact drills may or may not have a significant impact on local high school football teams, as some teams generally don't have more than two full-contact practices in a typical week during the season.
Skyline head football coach Heath Gilbert said the proposed law needs to be clarified -- particularly in regards to preseason practice -- before the true impact of the amendment can be realized.
The bigger issue arises when considering preseason camps, where contact drills are a necessity in order to teach the fundamentals of the sport.
Coaches are left wondering how they are supposed to teach safe tackling techniques and prepare their players for the grind of a full season when they are limited in their opportunities to do so.
"Open-field tackling is a skill that needs to be taught correctly," Gilbert said. "My biggest concern would be early in our camp. The players need to condition their bodies for that."
Central head football coach Mike Yew expressed similar thoughts, stating that the school's football program has always used contact with the "intent and purpose to teach."
Yew said he is concerned that the possible new law will negatively impact players' level of preparedness for full-speed, full-contact situations on game day.
"Is there a place in football to limit certain things? Yes," Yew said. "But if you limit it too much, kids may not be in game shape and prepared come Friday night."
Schools in the area and the rest of the state currently follow rules created by the VHSL and the guidelines created by the Board of Education under the current law as described in section 22.1-271.5 of the Code of Virginia.
At Central, when a player is suspected of sustaining a concussion, the school's athletic trainer is quick to jump in and remove that player from action. An ImPACT (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing) test is given to the player, and the results are sent to a neurologist who provides further diagnosis and a timetable for the player's safe return to football. Rinker said Central's football program experienced three or four concussions this season between the varsity and junior varsity teams combined.
Skyline -- which has averaged about 10 concussions per season over the last few years, according to Gilbert -- follows a similar procedure, but the program has the benefit of having an athletic trainer that is certified to handle concussions, eliminating the need for a neurologist, although most players do see their own doctor to get a second opinion.
Time will tell whether the new amendment -- if passed -- will be a positive change for high school football. So far, some local coaches are not convinced.
"The biggest thing I foresee happening is that in high school, you don't always have 11 one-way starters," Gilbert said. "The players need their reps. [Limiting contact in practice] could be counterproductive."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org