Sports

WIAA amendment would limit access to school’s football gear

Mercer Islanders Phil Frazier (34), Blake Johnson (15) and Parker Scott (24) drag down a Seattle Prep player during the first game of the 2011 season. A proposed rule would limit helmet and gear access by high schools, meaning no helmets during spring and summer practice. - Megan Managan/Mercer Island Reporter
Mercer Islanders Phil Frazier (34), Blake Johnson (15) and Parker Scott (24) drag down a Seattle Prep player during the first game of the 2011 season. A proposed rule would limit helmet and gear access by high schools, meaning no helmets during spring and summer practice.
— image credit: Megan Managan/Mercer Island Reporter

If the Everett School District gets its way, Mercer Island and other football programs around the state will spend the spring and summer waiting until the fall to cash that cheque.

The Middle School/High School Amendment Six, titled “Out-of-season, use of school equipment,” would limit the usage of football helmets and shoulder pads to the designated WIAA season — fall.

School districts would be allowed to authorize the use of facilities and other school-owned equipment, with the exception of football helmets and shoulder pads.

“School uniforms, football helmets and shoulder pads may be worn only during the WIAA season for that sport except during Washington State Coaches Association feeder or all state contests,” reads Part ‘A’ of the amendment.

The ‘pros,’ as listed in the document prepared for the WIAA Representative Assembly, contend it would decrease the number of hits that student-athletes would take in a season (particularly concussions).

Amendments five and six were both proposed by Everett School District and Jackson High School Athletic Director Robert Polk, who is a member of the Representative Assembly from Northwest District 1. The same four 4A Wesco schools, Cascade (Everett), Marysville-Pilchuck, Marysville-Getchell and Everett High School, were listed as supporters to give the amendment the required five signers.

Polk said the main motivation behind his proposal was safety and limiting the number of hits football players take throughout the year.

“We’re hearing more and more about concussions in the sport of football and other sports,” Polk said. “Studies are coming out that concussions are not only caused by one impact, but are the result of continuous contact and may lead to other brain injuries.”

WesCo coaches discussed the issue at the league’s postseason meeting, and it received what he termed “mediocre” support.

With that in mind, Polk crafted the amendments to create a level playing field for football programs across the state and ensure coaches that taking steps to reduce contact would not be punished with a competitive disadvantage.

“I sometimes believe coaches will respond one way around their peers, but behind closed doors, will have a different opinion,” Polk said. “Their biggest fear is they don’t want to get left behind what other schools are doing.”

The only listing under the “cons” is: “Athletes may not be prepared to the same extent as in years past, but all teams would have the same amount of time for conditioning and preparation.” But coaches from around the area believe the detriments of the amendment would run far deeper.

Mercer Island High School Athletic Director Craig Olson said while he understands the intent of the rule, he doesn't think the rule is the right way to go about preventing injuries.

"You can't teach technique like blocking or hitting without it," said Olson. He said the WIAA Executive Board meeting was held Monday, March 12 to discuss the various amendments, and that it was a mixed bag.

"Most agree with the idea, but not the way this is written," he said. He pointed out that many colleges have a limited number of contact days during practice, to help avoid concussions, and that perhaps something like that would be a better fit. Olson also said he felt that helmets should always be worn, because even if there is not intent for injury, football by its nature involves players in close contact, which results in even unintentional contact.

"It will be an interesting vote," he said.

Mat Taylor, who has taken Skyline to the 4A state title game in each of his four seasons as head coach and won three championships including the most recent, believes the amendments are well-intentioned but would come with consequences that could hurt student-athletes’ chances at being recruited and may actually lead to more injuries.

“I understand that maybe we need to limit the amount of days we do in the offseason,” Taylor said. “But that needs to be equitable across all sports, and you can’t use football equipment as a way to do it.”

Neither Mercer Island head coach Brett Ogata or Athletic Director Craig Olson could be reached for comment.

One piece of evidence Polk supplied for his position on the issue was the Division III college football rule that prohibits pad use for any out-of-season activity. But Interlake coach Jason Rimkus, who spent two seasons coaching at his alma mater, Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, said while the rule takes the pads off players, its stated intent of eliminating contact was simply impossible to enforce.

“We ran it just like a normal practice, but without pads,” Rimkus said, adding that there was no live tackling and there were always “quick whistles” during drills. “We had a couple lineman that got some big-time cuts because they banged heads. Coaches are competitive people, and they are going to find ways to push the envelope to get their team as prepared as possible.”

Rimkus also shared concern about placing such stringent limitations on gear use during the spring and summer, which is a time period he has used for the past two seasons to offer first-time football players a chance to become acclimated with the gear and decide whether or not football is for them.

“I think its safer for a kid to be in pads for 10 to 12 days in June than it is to give him from November to August without pads, and then two weeks later expect him to go play a game,” he said. “If they’re going to do anything, it would be limiting the amount of time you can have with your kids. I think the kids being in pads and getting used to the physical part of the game, getting their feet underneath them in that regard is helpful to their safety for the fall.”

Dan Teeter, the head coach at 2A Lakewood High School near Arlington, felt so strongly about the likelihood of those unintended consequences taking hold that he drafted an online petition he plans to present as evidence that coaches around the state are largely opposed to Amendment Six.

Teeter said he had approximately 170 signatures just a day after putting it online. Many of those were from head coaches, some of whom carried the concern that the rule change would create the potential for wealthier programs with booster clubs to circumvent the rule by purchasing equipment that would not be owned by the school and therefore could be used out of season without putting the athlete or district in violation.

Another factor both Taylor and Teeter cited was the fact that helmets and shoulder pads do not always equate to full or even partial contact drills.

During the Cougars’ annual passing league tournament, which features around 20 teams from across the state, players wear helmets and shoulder pads primarily to avoid unintended head-to-head contact with other players, not create it.

“It’s not a contact tournament, but we wear helmets for safety reasons,” Teeter said. “It will actually have a negative impact where it will create more safety hazards. If a kid is running full speed going for a ball, there is a safety factor.”

Mercer Island wears helmets and shoulder pads for spring practices and most had players who attended summer camps. Those camps are crucial to student-athletes hoping to be recruited, and for many, the only other option would be to purchase pads out of pocket to use in those events.

Players who may be offered scholarships by  FCS, Division II, Division III or NAIA schools have their best chance to be seen during the team-attended camps.

“We have some kids that are finally realizing that goal of playing college football, not necessarily D-I, but college,” Teeter said. “They (coaches at camp hosting colleges) have a chance to evaluate our kids, and it’s not the same without seeing them take contact.”

A quick online search yields waves of certified helmets, shoulder pads and every other piece of equipment necessary to outfit a football player for a camp, but with costs for the pair hovering around $600 for what amounts to only a handful of uses, that isn’t always a practical option.

“It could create a disparity between the haves and have nots,” Teeter said.

Teeter’s fear of more affluent populations using deep pockets to bypass the intent of the rule was something Polk had admittedly not considered and adds to a list of potential complications that may require reworking the language of the amendment to fit the designed intent.

“There’s a lot of grey area and angles and that is one I had not thought about,” Polk said of booster clubs or parent organizations footing the bill for helmets and shoulder pads that would not fall into the rule as it is currently worded. “I realize putting this out there it might not be perfect and conversation will need to take place.”

2012 WIAA Representative Assembly Docket

There are 16 amendments taking on issues from cheerleading eligibility to what constitutes a “contest” during the tennis season. Each will be discussed by the WIAA Representative Assembly voters and league presidents from around the state on Tuesday, Mar. 12. Voting will be finalized in the middle of April and will require a 60 percent majority to pass. Amendments that are passed through the WIAA Representative Assembly will go into effect on Aug. 1, 2012. The only officials from KingCo on the Representative Assembly is Eastlake Athletic Director Brent Kawaguchi and Mount Si Athletic Director Greg Hart.

 

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