Athens, Ga. – University of Georgia kinesiology researchers will launch a new study of 2,500 football players at 25 high schools across the state when pre-season practices begin in August that will provide the scientific data to help administrators and coaches set effective heat-related policies nationwide, and hopefully, save lives.
Since 1995, there have been 39 football deaths from heat-related injuries, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina. In 2003, the National Collegiate Athletic Association enacted heat-related football practice restrictions during the early August two-a-day period. However, no such restrictions exist in interscholastic football pre-season practice.
In response to the frequency of heat-related deaths, the Georgia High Schools Association (GHSA) mandated that all schools develop a written policy for practice in extreme weather conditions, recommending the use of heat index rating or wet bulb globe temperature (WBGT), to determine whether or not practices should be held or modified.
However, many schools are struggling to develop this policy due to limited data available for the relationship between sport participation in various weather conditions and the risk of exertional heat illness, said Mike Ferrara, a professor of kinesiology and director of the athletic training education program in UGA’s College of Education.
“Some schools have used the American College of Sports Medicine guidelines, others have adopted an unpublished heat index scale, and some have developed their own guidelines utilizing a heat index,” said Ferrara. “The problem with this approach is the limited scientific data to support these scales, knowing exactly what the risk is when practicing in extreme environmental conditions and how it is applied to the adolescent athlete. We have seen some policies that have been conservative while others have allowed practice to continue in extreme conditions.”
This is even more of an important issue as seen from last year’s death of a Kentucky high school football player from exertional heat stroke. The coach has been indicted by a grand jury and is charged with reckless homicide, meaning he should have known that his decision to keep players running “gassers” after one collapsed could lead to the players’ deaths. The coach has pleaded not guilty. Bud Cooper, co-investigator on the study from the department of kinesiology said that with proper supervision, an exertional heat stroke death should not occur on the playing field.
Ferrara and Cooper will begin a three-year study in August to measure WBGT-a measure of humidity, integrated effects of radiation and wind, and ambient air temperature combined into a formula to give a WBGT reading-which has been recognized as the “gold standard” for measuring environmental conditions. They will correlate those figures to the rate of exertional heat illnesses (EHIs) to determine risk levels. The study is being funded by a $150,000 grant from the National Athletic Trainers’ Association Research and Education Foundation, GHSA, Georgia Athletic Trainers Association and the National Federation of State High Schools Foundation.
“We’ll be measuring the number of heat cramps, heat syncope (fainting), heat exhaustions and heat stroke cases in Georgia and compare those to the WBGT,” said Ferrara. “For instance, in the four-year NCAA study that we just completed, we found that the risk of EHIs increases five-fold when the WBGT was 82 degrees or greater.
“We also found that in the Southeastern U.S., the EHI risk was 2.5 times greater when compared to any other region of the country and this risk was increased three-fold during the month of August,” he said. “Further, the state of Georgia EHI rate was 1.9 times higher than the rest of the Southeast and 3.2 times higher than our national sample.”
While the GHSA mandates that every school have a heat policy, it remains up to the school to decide what their policy will be. “One of the problems in establishing hard rules is that there is no real consensus in the information given to high school coaches and administrators by a variety of groups in the health services field” said Ralph Swearngin, GHSA executive director.
“A research study on heat illness in high school football is very important for Georgia and the entire nation. The NCAA profited greatly from a similar study,” said Swearngin. “High school football coaches in Georgia have done an excellent job of monitoring the 32,000-plus players who play each year.I believe they have an understanding of the seriousness of this issue. However, the more information we can give them, the better they will be able to provide for the well-being of their players.”
The UGA athletic training education program will host a free workshop for area high school coaches focusing on heat illness, prevention, recognition and management on Monday, July 27 from 6-7:30 p.m. in the Flower Suite at St. Mary’s Hospital in Athens. For more information, contact Mike Ferrara at 706/542-4801 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
See the National Athletic Trainers Association’s preseason heat-acclimatization guidelines for the secondary school athlete for more info: www.nata.org/HeatAcclimatization/index.htm.