26 Jul 2010
The National Federation of High School Associations handles officiating in a very similar fashion to the NFL: Each year, certain rules are reexamined and modified, and points of emphasis are issued. These changes and emphases are sent out to high school officials, coaches and directors in various publications. Considering last year's firestorm over concussions, no one was surprised when the NFHS decided to put "concussion recognition and management" on the top of the points of emphasis. Beyond that, however, a rule change was in order.
A timeout occurs when an apparently unconscious player is determined by the game officials. The player may not return to play in the game without written authorization from a physician (M.D./D.O.). This time-out, if not charged, is an official's time-out.
There were a lot of problems with the old rule's language; "apparently unconscious" gives the officials authority to remove concussed players from the game, but the vagueness of "unconscious" left officials out on a limb whenever a player was conscious and partially responsive. The new rule allows officials to remove players who show signs, symptoms or behaviors consistent with a concussion. This may seem like a small change, but the NFHS has a medical committee which publishes very specific guidelines regarding concussions. Everyone is finally on the same page.
The NFHS sadly took a step backward in the "enforcement" section of the rule. Where before a player could only reenter play with written authorization, a player may now reenter play after being "cleared" by an appropriate health-care professional, as defined by the host state. "Cleared" is left undefined, but the rules committee made it clear that it no longer means written authorization. This change seems pretty benign, until you read the examples which accompany the new rule, which officials rely upon for interpretation:
With 4:37 to play in the first quarter, A1 exhibited signs of a possible concussion and was sent out of the game by the officials. When the second quarter begins, A1 is sent back into the game.
Ruling: Legal. If A1 returns, the officials are to assume an appropriate health-care professional approved, as re-entry is a coach's decision. However, if A1 again shows signs consistent with a concussion, he should be sent off again.
There is a world of difference between written authorization from a licensed professional and the assumption that a player has been "cleared." A written authorization has the doctor's name, the player's name, and enough important facts to create a clear paper trail, both to protect the doctor and to allow the officials or parents to complain to the state association should a player be sent back into the game before it is safe. Of course, moving re-entry solely into the realm of "coach's decision" really turns medical clearance into kabuki theater:
A1 sustains a hard but legal hit and is slow to get to his feet. When he does rise, he holds his head and has trouble keeping his balance. The officials send A1 off the field. There is no appropriate health-care professional on site. A1 is sent back into the game after sitting out one down.
Ruling: Responsibility for A1's return falls on the head coach. The officials are not required to determine if an appropriate health-care professional has examined and cleared A1.
So, officials are to assume players have been checked, that they have been cleared, and even if there is no one there to clear the player, stick their heads in the sand. While making it easier for officials to remove a player from play, the NFHS at the same time has made it far harder to actually keep injured players out of the game. Faced with an unscrupulous coach, in fact, the officials have no recourse save repeatedly removing the player and making him sit out one play at a time, which is almost certain to end badly for the official -- reentry is a coach's decision, remember?
While the rest of the football community is taking a hard look at concussion management, high school players -- the most vulnerable players with the least control over their fate -- have been stripped of what little protection they had. Reentry can have serious consequences for a concussed player, including paralysis and death. That the NFHS has essentially put concussion enforcement on the coach's shoulders just shows how far we have to go on this deadly serious issue.
I called the NFHS to get an official explanation or statement about the new rule, but they did not return my call.
10 comments, Last at 29 Jul 2010, 2:18pm by Just me
Guest columnist Zachary O. Binney looks the effects of the removal of the "Probable" designation from the NFL's official injury reports.