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May 25, 2013

Illinois safety measure won't help prospects

MORE: Rivals Camp Series presented by Under Armour

Dallas Jackson is the National Columnist for Rivals.com. Email him your comments or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.

Even with the best of intentions, not every decision made in the name of safety is the right one for the game of football
or its players.

The Illinois High School Association Board of Directors took the latest step in the battle for student-athlete safety by passing into legislation its Policy 13. The policy will implement regulations for heat acclimation in preseason football practice and eliminate live tackling during the preseason. While the IHSA may have moved forward toward preventing heatstroke, it may also have taken a step back in the development of the state's prospects.

According to Rivals.com regional analyst Josh Helmholdt, the Illinois rule will become just another roadblock for prospects within the Big Ten footprint when compared to others across the country.

"Midwest kids are certainly behind their Southern counterparts," he said. "First, there is no spring practice in this region and no state association is adequately addressing that. Now, making more rules will only create a larger gap in development and it will start costing kids scholarship opportunities."

In the Class of 2013, only Ohio produced more than 80 FBS signees in the region.

Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota combined for 221 signees -- 111 fewer than the state of Florida despite having a combined 152,733 more participants.

Those numbers were staggering to Helmholdt.

"That is just ridiculous," he said. "There isn't anything close to that in this area, and the gap will widen. Not being on the field will hurt those fringe guys the most.

"It isn't that there aren't athletes here, but they are losing opportunities to develop and showcase themselves."

Policy 13 was a collaborative effort of the IHSA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee and the Football Advisory Committee, as well as the Korey Stringer Institute. Stringer was a professional football player who collapsed and died after suffering heatstroke during NFL training camp in 2001.

University of Illinois associate professor of orthopedic surgery Dr. Preston M. Wolins serves on the SMAC. He said he believes that taking these steps balances risk and reward.

"These guidelines are based on the most recent scientific evidence, as well as the expertise of the coaches who will help implement them," Wolins said. "Both committees believe the guidelines represent a significant contribution to the health of our athletes."

Metamora (Ill.) High coach Pat Ryan said he understands the rules but that the transition will be difficult on everyone.

"This new policy will undoubtedly change the way we, as coaches, approach preseason practice," Ryan said. "Coaches are going to have to get more creative with when and how they schedule practices, as well as what they do with their time.

"Change is always difficult, but the game is changing and we need to adapt to continue to put the safety of our players first."

IHSA Executive Director Marty Hickman said this move was inevitable.

"I think most coaches understood that changes were on the horizon," Hickman said. "We now want to be in a position to give our coaches as much information as possible to make sure they are comfortable with the new policy."

While few -- if any -- would argue that the safety of players on the field is not of prime importance, there are people who feel the bottom-line argument of safety first has become the crutch of many policies being passed across the country.

Simply put: Eliminating time on the field does not sufficiently eliminate injury or risk.

Helmholdt believes being able to participate more in the spring would help with player safety later in the year more than legislating time spent in the summer heat. There is significant medical backing to the theory that being active and outside earlier prepares the body for the heat of football season.

As it stands, players are forced to act independently because of the limitations of their respective states by participating in spring combines and skill development camps.

"A lot of Midwest kids understood the value of events such as the Rivals Camp Series presented by Under Armour," Helmholdt said. "This region is always going to have kids like Laquon Treadwell or Adolphus Washington who will get recruited no matter what, but there are many more who need to get out and get seen."

No state that hosts a Big Ten program has a spring football schedule. Ohio voted down a proposed 10-day practice schedule.

Pennsylvania repeatedly has rejected the notion and famously spurned overtures made by then-Pittsburgh and Penn State coaches Dave Wannstedt and the late Joe Paterno.

Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and New Jersey also do not permit spring football. Additionally, Iowa voted to eliminate two-a-day practices in the summer effective this season.

By contrast, Missouri is the only state that has an SEC program that does not allow spring drills.

Helmholdt said that not being on the field puts many players behind in the recruiting cycle.

"Some guys like Eric Fisher will still get a chance and could develop into an NFL draft pick, but understand that those situations are extremely rare," he said. "There is a growing disparity that needs to be addressed."

Finding a solution that meets the needs of all involved has become a major area of debate and consternation.

Helmholdt believes that until state associations are ready to make fundamental changes, instead of applying more bandages, the goals of safety and ensuring the viability of quality football may never meet.

"Many times, associations are hiding behind buzzwords," he said. "That way, they are ensured positive support and that will discourage others to speak out against the new rules.

"The gap is widening and kids in the South are getting more opportunities, and those last few scholarships are going to kids who are out on the field more often. At some point, that will matter."



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