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Coaches, leaders speak out against proposal

Representative Carol Sente speaks at Monday's forum in Vernon Hills.
Representative Carol Sente speaks at Monday's forum in Vernon Hills.

VERNON HILLS – State. Rep. Carol Sente insists she’s not trying to do away with football by introducing a bill that would limit how much high school players could hit one another in practice each week.

But the majority of coaches, athletic administrators and parents who attended a public forum on the proposed legislation introduced by the Lincolnshire Democrat agree that governing high school sports shouldn’t be part of lawmakers’ duties.

Instead, they suggested that rather than focusing a law on how high school football coaches go about their business, state legislators should trust those charged with not only getting teams ready to play each Friday night, but in protecting the teenagers who play for them.

“The practice field is our classroom,” said Glenbrook North coach Bob Pieper, who was among a number of coaches who told Sente that House Bill 1205 would not allow them to teach in the manner they have been trained.

IHSA executive director Marty Hickman tends to agree.

Hickman was part of the panel for Monday night’s forum that included neurologist Dr. Larry Robbins, who was among those who pushed Sente to introduce the bill. Hickman said the IHSA has been “good citizens” when it comes to protecting the 50,000 high school football players competing in Illinois as well as educating coaches and parents.

Hickman said after the 21⁄2-hour forum that was attended by about 75 people that he doesn’t think a state law would do anything more for the state’s prep players than the IHSA already is doing.

“I think we’re doing good things,” Hickman said. “That’s really one of my concerns with this legislation is that this could be a step back. Obviously, we want to be part of the discussion, but we haven’t seen a need for legislation because we feel like we’ve been doing a good job.”

Sente said her proposed bill wasn’t introduced as a suggestion that the state’s athletic governing body and high school coaches aren’t doing enough. But Sente suggested that having a law on the books would ensure that all of the state’s member schools are operating the same way.

Sente reiterated that the language currently included in the bill would change once she has collected more opinion. Sente said she will hold a second public forum in Springfield on Wednesday when she’ll again seek input on whether a bill should go forward.

During Monday night’s forum, she asked coaches whether bumping the tackling limitations up to two days a week from one - as is included in the current form of the bill - would serve as an adequate compromise.

Coaches weren’t convinced.

Instead, they pointed to the fact that they already limit how much hitting they allow in practice as to preserve their players from serious head injuries such as concussions. But Robbins, who will appear at Wednesday’s forum along with Hickman, said the attention being paid to concussions at the NFL level continues to overshadow the issue of repeated blows to the head.

Robbins, one of two doctors on the panel, cited studies that suggested that youngsters who begin playing football at age 6 or 7 are likely to sustain anywhere from 2,000-4,000 moderate blows to the head by the time they are 18.

That number, he said, is much more concerning than players whose head injuries reach the level of concussions during their careers.

“The effects of these sub-concussive, lower-than-concussion hits are more than anyone realizes,” Robbins said.

If the lower-level hits add up, Robbins said, if players are genetically inclined, they are likely to experience dementia, Parkinson’s disease and Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) 40 or 50 years after they’ve finished playing than dealing with conditions like CTE.

While those in the audience weren’t questioning the impact that head injuries could have, they did take issue with making it the state’s business. One local parent told Sente that not every problem can be solved by creating a law and that her bill was another example of big government.

Sente countered by suggesting that her bill wasn’t introduced for “Nanny State” or big government or political correctness. Instead, she said she was simply addressing concerns among parents who feel not enough is being done.

“I’m just here to ask the questions,” Sente said. “I don’t think we have all the answers.”

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