Policies that protect high school athletes under scrutiny

BY JACK NISSEN
Capital News Service

LANSING — The Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) is fighting a national report that says it isn’t doing enough to protect student athletes.

The claim was in a nationwide study that analyzed policies related to student athletes. The Korey Stringer Institute, a part of the University of Connecticut that advocates for student athletes, ranked Michigan at 41st.

While Michigan scored points for heat exertion policies it has in place, it lost points for not requiring athletic trainers be onsite for contact sport practices, as well as having an undeveloped athletic emergency action plan.

MHSAA says the institute’s method for ranking states is flawed.

“They try to take a one-size-fits-all approach, and basically it’s a one-size-fits-nothing,” said John Johnson, MHSAA’s director of broadcast properties. “There’s lots of things it totally misses the mark on.”

Michigan has a coaches’ education policy and mandatory concussion reporting, two policies that Johnson said aren’t acknowledged in the report.

“There are too many things that vary from state to state, that you can’t just dump it into a matrix and it spits out rankings.”

The reason behind the study is to develop better state policies to address common reasons students die in high school sports, said Samantha Scarneo, the director of sport safety at the institute. The four primary causes of death in high school sports are heat stroke, brain-related trauma, cardiac arrest and a sickle cell trait, she said.

“We appreciate states that aren’t happy with where they are ranked,” Scarneo said. “The purpose of this study was not to point fingers, but to educate parents.”

The rankings were based on public information that the institute compiled. Any policies or laws the state and athletic association mandated for school districts to follow, coupled with how clear the wording of those policies were, helped determine the score each state received.

The ranking relied too much on the same laws standardized across all states, Johnson said. If you think about summer conditioning and climate change, it’s very different for those that practice in the middle of July in Alabama or the end of August in Michigan, he said.

“You’re not going to get that kind of standardization in 50 states on anything,” he said. “Even in Michigan, you can go to DeTour and find completely different weather on any given day than what you find in Detroit or Decatur.”

But the ranking method accounts for these factors, modifying the scores to reflect laws relative to the state, Scarneo said.

“We’re not saying every state has to have the same exact policy. What we’re saying is every state has to have a policy. That’s what sets the standard of care.”

For Michigan’s athletic trainers, the standard of care means taking a proactive role in keeping student athletes healthy. Some cultures promote a win-at-all-cost mentality, Mitch Smelis, who chairs the secondary school committee of the Michigan Athletic Trainers Society, wrote in an email.

“At some point a student’s participation in competitive athletics will come to an end. When that happens, what is the health status and how then are they able to function in society in the years ahead?” he said.

The trainers’ society says it looks at the institute’s report as a bridge to discussion about being more prepared.

“As an organization we look forward to partnering with others across the state,” Gretchen Goodman, the society’s president, wrote in an email, “as we engage in meaningful dialogue and implementation of plans and resources to help promote the safety and well-being of our secondary school athletes.”

In 2011, the Licensure of Athletic Trainers in Michigan was enacted to require that all athletic trainers meet several standards if they want to practice in the state. That includes a degree from an accredited college program, a certification from the Board of Certification and maintaining continuing education every three years.

Between 1982 and 2015, 735 students died as a result of participation in high school sports, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina.

MHSAA mandates its members report head injuries and, offers concussion insurance and sideline testing programs. We’ve been at the leading edge of addressing issues like concussions, Johnson said. “We’re not Johnny-come-late to the party when it comes to head issues.”

Johnson says there are enough policies in place that some high school coaches and administrators think MHSAA has too many rules. “So maybe the silver lining in the institute’s ranking is so we can point to it and say ‘here is someone who thinks differently.’ But there’s no way we’re 41st.”