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Amended bill limiting contact moving forward

When a proposed state law limiting contact among football players was met with stern opposition last month, the bill’s sponsor pledged to call an audible once she had more information.

State Rep. Carol Sente (D-Lincolnshire) will move forward with an amended version of House Bill 1205, which would confine full-padded football practices to two days a week during the season and prohibit it completely during the offseason and summer camps.

Sente will present the bill to the state education committee Wednesday in Springfield.

The amendments expand the number of allowed full-contact days from one to two days a week from Sente’s original bill. The revisions of the bill come after coaches, parents and IHSA officials criticized the legislation at public forums for being too vague – especially when it came to determining what constitutes contact or how it would be policed.

Coaches also argued that by limiting contact in practice, lawmakers would be putting players at risk because coaches would lose time to teach proper tackling methods. Still, Sente insists there has to be limits to cut down not only on concussions, but on repeated blows to the head that could lead to other health issues later in life.

A Cleveland Clinic study released this month showed that of 67 college football players studied, researchers discovered the more hits to the head they absorbed, the higher levels of the brain protein S-100B that leak into the bloodstream after the head injury.

The particular protein is found normally in the brain and researchers believe when it is found in a blood test, it is an indicator of a concussion.

Sente points to limits being put on full-contact drills by the NFL and organizations such as the Chicagoland Youth Football League and Pop Warner.

“So why is the group in the middle not doing as much?” Sente said in a phone interview Monday.

The amended bill characterizes full-padded practices as being workouts when players are wearing a helmet, shoulder pads, padded pants and cleats. Full contact practices would be at the coach’s discretion during the preseason. Marty Hickman, the IHSA’s executive director, said after a public forum in Vernon Hills last month that the proposed legislation is heavy-handed and that the IHSA already is doing enough to address head injuries.

Sente said the new version of her bill represents a compromise and said most coaches she spoke to don’t allow full-contact drills more than two days a week as it is.

“If in fact they are (limiting full-contact drills), what’s wrong with codifying their practice and putting into, ‘Well, if that’s what the good coaches are doing now and they feel like that is enough time, well, let’s be sure that maybe some coaches that are maybe over-doing it have some regulations,” Sente said.

“This is a pretty serious issue as I see it – protecting kids’ brains.”

Cary-Grove coach Brad Seaburg is among those who don’t feel like a law needs to be in place for coaches who already are limiting how much contact their players have with one another. He said Monday that gone are the “Wild West” days when players did much more full-contact hitting than they do now.

Seaburg, who guided the Trojans to the Class 6A state championship game in 2012, said coaches in general are much more aware of limiting hitting – not just because of head injuries, but to keep their players healthy for the long run. His C-G program limits heavy hitting to Tuesday and Wednesday, using Thursday as a walk-through and Monday for position drills.

Even on the full-padded days, Seaburg said his players do not bring one another to the ground.

Seaburg is concerned, though, about a law that would eliminate offseason full-contact drills. He estimates that outside of the four days the IHSA limits teams to either just helmets or to helmets and shoulder pads, his team runs about 13 full-padded practices during the offseason.

“We’re trying to produce a product by the first game,” Seaburg said. “If there was a piece of legislation telling us how we went about that, it would slow us down.”

According to research completed by the Sports Legacy Institute in Boston, 29 states allow offseason full-contact drills, either in the spring and summer. Of those, Illinois ranks first by allowing 20 days, followed by Texas (18), Florida (17) and Wyoming (14).

Huntley coach John Hart said his team already doesn’t run full-contact drills during the summer and offseason after coming from Indiana, where the practice was against state rules. But he doesn’t like the idea of Sente mandating what high school football teams do, saying her bill is from someone who doesn’t understand football.

Hart sees the bill as a way of Sente drawing attention to herself rather than tending to issues that really matter. Hart says that by Sente going after football, it provides her a much bigger audience than she would get by drawing attention to the head injuries being sustained in other sports such as soccer.

“All she’s done is wave a big white flag based on what a few NFL players have experienced that has nothing to do with our level (of football) or the levels below us,” Hart said. “It just makes zero sense to me other than the fact she’s trying to make a splash, and I really resent those people.”

Sente’s amendment also requires coaches to complete a comprehensive certified online concussion training program on or before May 31, 2014, stressing the need for coaches to be better educated in matters concerning football-related head injuries and concussions.

Former Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer is among those lending their name to the bill, joining former Harvard football player and professional wrestler Chris Nowinski. Concussions ended Hillenmeyer’s NFL career after eight seasons with the Bears and also forced Nowinski to leave World Wrestling Entertainment in 2004.

Nowinski is now the executive director of the Sports Legacy Institute, a Boston nonprofit that is seeking to ban offseason hitting among high school football players. Nowinski said he has spoken with Hickman and would like to work with IHSA officials in keeping high school football players from sustaining serious head injuries.

“We need limits – they should be there,” Nowinski said Monday. “How we get there is the harder question.

“But it’s becoming very clear that repetitive (head) trauma is not a good idea for a developing brain.”

In a letter written to committee members, Hillenmeyer said eliminating offseason contact and limiting the amount of hitting in practice during training camp and the season are “both laws that are long overdue.”

Hillenmeyer, who played his final game with the Bears in 2010, uses NFL guidelines as a standard. The NFL allows 14 full-contact days during its 18-week season, but forbids the practice during the offseason.

“(The fact) that this rule is not yet in place for high school and youth athletes is very unfortunate,” wrote Hillenmeyer, who was a founding member of the National Football League Players Association traumatic brain injury committee.

Sente said her goal is to get a law on the books, but said she’s not certain if it will happen this year. She said she’s fine with a multi-year approach, even if it doesn’t take legislation for changes to be made. She and Nowinski said they’d like to work with IHSA officials to create more awareness and create more educational opportunites for coaches and players.

And even with the opposition she faces from coaches and others, Sente will push forward for more attention to be paid to helping young players avoid serious head injuries.

“I will not let up on it,” she said. “And if it doesn’t pass this year, I want to see it happen one way or another.”

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