In the fall of 1972, I started my high school athletic career on a football field at New Berlin (Illinois) High School. It was the first year of our school’s football program, and I can still vividly recall playing against the Kincaid Ponies in the inaugural round of the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) playoffs just two years later. What a thrill it was for our team and community.
Now, I sit just one day from my retirement date after a 25-year career at the IHSA.
I have made a commitment to writing one letter each day during my final few months on the job, sharing reflections with colleagues, coaches, officials and others who have impacted my life and career. Today’s letter is an open one of sorts, responding to the question I have been most often asked over the past few years: “What is the future of high school football?”
As I have routinely told folks throughout my career, the reason I believe so strongly in education-based athletics is that my high school coaches were the most influential individuals in my life – next to my mom – growing up. The character and life lessons they instilled in me led me to follow their path as a high school teacher, coach and then principal, en route to my “dream job” at the IHSA – a job I didn’t know existed growing up in a town of 1,000 people.
In my quarter of a century at the IHSA, I don’t know that there is an issue we have attacked more fervently or collaboratively than that of concussions, especially in football. The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) has been at the forefront in that leadership, and the NFHS recently capped the 2015 high school football season with a release highlighting how far we have come in a short period of time (see the National Report on page 1 for entire release), including . . .
The NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee advocated that a concussed athlete must be removed from play and not allowed to play on the same day.
The NFHS developed its “Concussion in Sport” online course that has been completed by more than two million student-athletes, parents, coaches and officials.
The NFHS Concussion Summit Task Force adopted recommendations for reducing the amount of full contact in practices.
I am proud to say that in Illinois we took many additional steps in the name of safety thanks to the collective efforts of our member school coaches/administrators, the IHSA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, the IHSA Council on Player Safety, the state legislature and other invested constituents (please take the time to educate yourself further at Play Smart. Play Hard at http://www.ihsa.org/PlaySmartPlayHard).
Those efforts include the development of a “Return to Play” policy that was eventually used as the model for the current Illinois state law, the elimination of contact in summer football, required concussion education testing for coaches, and regular-season football practice contact limitations to name a few.
Keeping the 340,000-plus young men and young women who participate in high school sports in Illinois safe through risk minimization is the No. 1 responsibility of the association. We had an uplifting moment in that regard in October, when a class-action concussion lawsuit against the IHSA was dismissed with prejudice by the Honorable LeRoy K. Martin Jr. of the Circuit Court of Cook County. In Judge Martin’s order granting dismissal, he supported the IHSA’s progressive safety record, saying: “In fact, it is clear to this court that IHSA has acted to protect student-athletes in this state.”
Still, there are stark reminders that there is a risk of injury any time a player steps on the field of play. Chicago was home to a tragic example of that in October, when Bogan High School’s Andre Smith passed away following an injury suffered in a contest. As devastating as a tragedy like this is, it is also what continues to drive the doctors, certified athletic trainers and medical experts around the world who work to make sports safer for all athletes. Never has that been more apparent than right now.
The future of the game of football has been called into question often recently in the media. There is a part of me that takes exception to the tunnel vision that football is often viewed through, as the health of the student-athletes who play football is no more, or no less, important than those participating in cheerleading, soccer, lacrosse, basketball and so on.
As the dangers of head trauma in sports have become clearer over the last decade or so, many have piled on football (no pun intended), hastily calling for its demise. However, given time for research and reflection, we have seen many top medical experts speak to the safer climate that the initial “concussion crisis” has created for today’s game. Make no mistake, football has been here before, as history shows us that in 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt intervened to help change the trajectory of college football at a time when the game was becoming increasingly violent.
Sports Illustrated recently ran a story (December 14th: Brain and Brawn by Tom Taylor) on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), citing what we do and don’t know about CTE, along with highlighting some of the misinformation that been reported on the subject. In the story, University of Minnesota associate professor of neurosurgery Uzma Samadani, MD, PhD, makes it clear that she believes that inactivity and obesity are greater threats to young people than football, saying, “America’s problem is not that it plays football, but that it watches football.”
Samadani had even stronger words in a counterpoint against the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in its stance to ban youth football that was published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, as she said:
“Football is on the riskier end of the spectrum of sports, but still is less risky than skiing, snowboarding, skateboarding, equestrian sports or bicycling. If we are going to legislate all risk-taking behaviors in children, we should probably begin with those that are statistically most dangerous, rather than those in the middle.”
We know more today about concussions than we did yesterday and will know tomorrow than we did today. Football remains under the microscope, and that is a good thing for the safety of current and future student-athletes. I have been irked that many of those serving as the judge, jury and abolitionists of high school football often do so based upon judgments accrued from looking at the college and professional games, as well as past athletes who played in different eras without the current safeguards. It remains vital that we move forward and allow the opportunity for the recent changes to the high school game, and those that may still come like the development of new helmet technology, to positively impact player safety for this generation of players.
I can say unequivocally that high school football is far safer now than when I played. I believe that is a sentiment that will be repeated by the forthcoming generations of high school football players in Illinois.
As long as some of the best and brightest minds on the planet are focusing their energy on the goal of making the game as safe as possible, I personally believe the game will not only continue to survive, but thrive.
I hope it gets that chance.
I talked earlier about the tragedy that occurred in Chicago this season, but there was also triumph from the Windy City.
The city of Chicago has a storied lineage of producing great high school athletes, so many were surprised to learn that when Wendell Phillips Academy won the 2015 IHSA Class 4A Football state championship, it marked the first-ever football state title by a member of the Chicago Public Schools.
In the post-game press conference that night, several of the players talked about how football had helped steer them to a path away from gangs, drugs and violence that others around them had succumbed to.
Senior captain Amir Watts told the assembled media that, “Football has pretty much guided my life, all my life. With football, you get structure and discipline. It’s made me a better man.”
Fellow defensive linemen Malcolm Fox finished Watts next sentence, adding, “especially with our coaches. Our coaches are amazing in the way they teach us to be young men and to deal with adversity and be humble in victory.”
Then Chris Elmore closed by saying, “Football has made me a better person, and man, all-around. Every day when I go to practice, I think, ‘man, what would I do without football.’”
The world is a very different place today than it was when I graduated from high school in 1976, and New Berlin remains a very different place than the Bronzeville neighborhood that houses Phillips Academy in Chicago.
I won’t pretend to have faced the same adversity as those young men from Phillips as a high school student, but I can definitely relate to their post-game comments.
I am not sure where I would be today without football either.
I hope that is something that the nearly 47,000 high school student-athletes who played the game in Illinois last year, and the million-plus around the country, never have to worry about either.
Marty Hickman retired last month after 14 years as executive director of the Illinois High School Association and 25 years on the IHSA administrative staff.