WASHINGTON – University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair’s death in June brought plenty of public attention to heatstroke, and it’s making local high school athletics officials and coaches strengthen their efforts to keep student athletes safe in the heat.
Maryland and District of Columbia athletic associations and school systems say they continue to stress the importance of safe practices to prevent heatstroke and dehydration, giving their coaches proper training and equipment to better monitor players’ health.
“It’s nothing certified athletic trainers and sports medicine professionals are unfamiliar with,” Jennifer Rheeling, District of Columbia State Athletic Association Sports Advisory Committee Chairwoman, told Capital News Service. “It’s not new to us. (McNair’s death) has just brought a bigger focus to it from the outside.”
Proper medical care for players has been under scrutiny since McNair died of heatstroke in June. McNair, a sophomore offensive lineman at the University of Maryland, died 15 days after collapsing at a team workout. Maryland President Wallace Loh said McNair did not receive proper medical care from the team.
An external investigation by Walters, Inc. into the handling of McNair’s medical emergency and death is ongoing. Results of the investigations are expected to be released on Friday.
Since the McNair tragedy, Washington area high school coaches said they have redoubled attention to players’ health while in practice and on the field.
“There was already an emphasis on it because kids have been dying all over the country,” Eleanor Roosevelt Head Coach Thomas Green told CNS. “But with it being so close to home…we were definitely looking into making sure the kids were safe before and after practice.”
According to an annual study by the University of North Carolina’s National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury, 63 football players have died of heatstroke since 1995. Forty-five of those deaths were high school students.
All high school coaches in the District of Columbia State Athletic Association have to undergo specific training with courses certified by the National Federation of State High Schools Association. In addition to those courses, coaches are required to participate in training from organizations like the American Red Cross or the American Heart Association and receive CPR certification.
Schools in Maryland must implement preseason-practice heat acclimatization guidelines for student athletes.
For example, Montgomery County Public School Systems requires extra training in addition to the NFHS courses and shows student athletes health and safety presentations delivered by athletic trainers or head coaches.
“Safe competition is a fundamental part of the MCPS athletic program,” MCPS Director of System-Wide Athletics Jeffrey Sullivan said in a statement. “Education and prevention are paramount points of our health and safety protocol.”
A tub filled with ice water sits close to Eleanor Roosevelt’s practice field just in the event the training staff feels a player is showing signs of heatstroke. In addition to the tubs and whirlpools the school already owned, Prince George’s County provided the school with an additional tub to accommodate more players.
Before McNair’s death, Green said players would try to fight through heat distress symptoms. That isn’t the case now.
“If they aren’t feeling good…they tell the trainer,” Green said. “If they didn’t eat anything before practice, they let us know so we can feed them, whereas in the past they probably wouldn’t say anything.”
Almost every school has an athletic trainer on staff to assist with injuries and oversee practices. It is often the coach who has the final say on the field, but the trainers are the ones who decide if it is too hot to practice.
“(The trainers) tell us where the heat is and what we have to do,” St. Albans School Head Coach Gary Schnell told CNS. “If we can or can’t practice, if we can only wear helmets and shoulder pads, they let us know that. Fortunately, it’s a decision I don’t have to make.”
Trainers have wet-bulb globe thermometers to measure the heat stress in sunlight. The thermometer readings take several factors into account, such as temperature, wind speed, humidity and the angle of the sun. This is different from the heat index, which just measures heat and humidity in shaded areas.
The thermometer readings are based on a color scale ranging from green to black. Each color dictates how long a team is allowed to practice, how much equipment can be worn during practice and the amount of breaks between workouts.
As the reading increases, the duration of practices and equipment worn decreases while the amount and duration of breaks increases. For example, a code green reading is considered normal conditions; a code black, which is a reading of 92 degrees or higher, means the athletic trainer can cancel practice.
These thermometers are also used by the NCAA, according the athletic association’s sports medicine handbook. The NCAA also follows guidelines from the American College of Sports Medicine, which dictate practice parameters depending on the thermometer reading.
Rheeling said McNair’s death was an example of why player safety is so important.
“This is a clear reminder of why we do what we do, why we’re so thorough and don’t make exceptions,” she said.
A University of Georgia study based on these thermometer readings places Maryland and the District in the hottest of three regions in the country. The region includes the entire Southeast and parts of the Southwest. Being in those naturally hotter conditions has prompted coaches and trainers to move practices into the late afternoons and even push back start times for games in some cases.
“It helps people be more cognizant of when they’re starting their games in the early season,” Rheeling said of the readings. “We are still highly likely to have hot and humid conditions…through the third week of September.”
Green and his staff continue to evaluate how the team can improve practice to highlight player safety. When it comes to protecting his players, Green said he is willing to do whatever it takes.
“I would never want a kid to get sick or die on my watch,” Green said. “We’ve done all kinds of things. We’ve cut practice, pushed the schedule back. I think we’re doing all we can on our end.”