Hollywood has done high school football no favors.
In the movies, players are sometimes depicted as out-of-control, law-breaking punks. And win-at-all-cost coaches are hard and relentless and overbearing to an extreme.
Practice conditions have been shown to be unsafe, and even inhumane.
Real-life high school football coaches around Illinois don't appreciate the perceptions, and they might be wondering if current proposals by some IHSA officials and state politicians are based more on the fiction that is often depicted on the big screen rather than the reality that they see every day at their own practices.
"There are way too many football movies from the '80s and '90, like 'The Program' where you've got players being launched at each other and everyone's making these big, crazy hits, and no one's focusing on safety and that's just not the way it really is," Antioch coach Brian Glashagel said. "Everyone I know is doing it the right way. I can't think of one coach who's not. You don't even hear rumors about coaches who aren't."
Glashagel is referring to practice methods, and what's appropriate and what is not appropriate in terms of player health and safety. It's a subject that recently has been brought to the forefront of high school sports as the IHSA looks to amend its rules and regulations for football prior to the 2014 season.
With the help of state Rep. Carol Sente, a Vernon Hills Democrat who has tried unsuccessfully within the last year to pass legislation to significantly limit tackling during football season, the IHSA is now targeting preseason football practices in the summer.
The IHSA wants to cut out full contact and tackles to the ground during the 25 allotted summer practice days, and put strict restrictions on the equipment that can be used, essentially allowing just helmets and shoulder pads. The IHSA board will discuss the proposals at its meeting next month.
In response, a group of football coaches from Lake County, including Glashagel, Carmel coach Andy Bitto, Wauconda coach Dave Mills and Lake Zurich coach Dave Proffitt, met at a Wauconda restaurant on Sunday to draft a counter-proposal.
"All of us are definitely for a safer game," said Bitto, also Carmel's athletic director. "And if this were just about concussions, which is what this seems to be driven by because that's always in the news, we'd be all for it. Yes, let's find a way to reduce the number of concussions. But the consensus among us coaches, is that this (the current proposal by the IHSA) touches on much more than that, and we think it might be going too far.
"When the government or someone else is making decisions for you, there are always unintended consequences. That's why we wanted to get together and get our thoughts down on paper. We want to suggest some parameters that make sense to people like us, the coaches who are dealing with this every day."
As it stands now, coaches could elect to run their players through full-gear, full-contact drills on each and every one of their 25 allotted summer practice days. Bitto and Glashagel say that would be an extreme and that they don't know any coach who does that, mostly for fear of injury but also because it's not necessary.
However, the coaches do believe that some full-gear, full-contact days should be permitted during the summer in order to acclimate players to game-like conditions. In their counter-proposal, the Lake County coaches suggest that the IHSA should allow for 10 of the 25 summer practice days to be open to full-gear, with the additional 15 days broken down into 13 days of just shoulder pads and helmets and two days of just helmets. The coaches also suggest that full gear should not be worn on consecutive days.
Bitto says an "unintended consequence" of having absolutely no full-gear days over the summer could be more injuries, as players would become less versed and less practiced as to how to make and take hits properly, and how to use their equipment for protection.
"There's a study out that shows that football players who have less contact actually get hurt more," Bitto said. "You've got to learn the proper way to tackle and block and how to take a hit and you can't be doing that for the first time when you're in a game."
The IHSA's proposal also puts restrictions on the timing of football activities, limiting practices to a maximum of three hours per day with a required two hours of rest per athlete before the next sports-related activity can take place.
"I don't know how they can legislate or even enforce something like that," Glashagel said. "If you're saying that after a three-hour football practice that a kid can't go lift or watch film until he has a two-hour rest break, it's unrealistic. Kids have jobs they have to get to, they have other sports they do in the summer. Their only window to lift might be right after practice. They might not be able to come back two hours later. They might be at something else by then.
"The IHSA is putting this out there for football, and yet, kids can play triple headers and six hours of baseball a day and play 100 games over the summer and everyone is fine with that. We're not suggesting there should be restrictions on other sports, but we are questioning the restrictions that are directed at just football. There are inconsistencies here from sport to sport."
In their counter-proposal, the Lake County coaches suggested that the three hours of practice time for football in the summer include only on-field activities and that off-field activities such as weight training and film study and voluntary conditioning not be regulated by the IHSA.
Prior to their meeting, the Lake County coaches studied the off-season and preseason football practice policies of several other states. They believe their counter-proposals are fair and in line with policies in states such as Ohio and Texas.
"I just hope the IHSA listens to us, the people who deal with all this first-hand," Glashagel said. "The bottom line is, we are so much safer than when I played (in the late 1980s). From the equipment, to the training to hydration to techniques, the coaches I know all try to do it the right way. We don't practice in the heat. We aren't doing non-stop hitting. We want to keep our players safe. We don't want injuries.
"But it's like football is getting picked on. There's no doubt in my mind that's happening."
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