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The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tennessee)
A dozen years ago, I wrote a guest column for The Commercial Appeal entitled "Putting Student Athletes' Health at Risk." With the unfortunate death of a young athlete in Byhalia, Miss., this week, it's obvious high school football players are still at risk.
It's time state legislatures took control of high school athletics by abolishing all high school athletic associations, such as the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA) and the Mississippi High School Activities Association.
Place high school sports under the supervision of state and local school boards where it belongs, and where health - not wealth - can be made the top priority.
When it's this hot, we are told to protect our dogs, cats, and plants from the heat. We are urged to check on elderly neighbors. We are cautioned to drink plenty of water and wear light clothes. Yet, all the while, we allow young students as young as 14 to begin football practice during July, the hottest time of the year.
Even colleges don't start their practices as early as July 31. There's good reason for that: I have been told that practicing football with full pads can increase the heat index by 15 degrees.
What's so silly about starting high school practice in midsummer and regular season games in mid-August is that the regular season will end before Nov. 1; just about the time crisp temperatures that we think of as real football weather are likely to begin.
The main reason for this schedule is the TSSAA. This organization, which rules high school sports, wants to have as many teams, as many divisions and as many playoff brackets as possible to determine the state championship football teams.
Completing the regular high school football season early gives the TSSAA until mid-December to stage as many postseason games as possible, and to make money on them from parking, concessions, admissions and videos.
The TSSAA loves to have cities in Tennessee fight for the privilege of hosting some of its other postseason events, such as the annual Spring Fling. It's like bidding for a new Nissan plant: Its officials get wined and dined like rock stars, all on the backs of our student-athletes.
I have asked many of our state legislators why we allow the TSSAA to exploit our young student-athletes without government regulation. The response has been a reluctance to take on a body as powerful as the TSSAA. Thus it is allowed to operate its revenue-generating tournaments without oversight, even at the expense of our students' welfare.
I do understand some rules for safety have been enacted since my article first appeared, but that doesn't deal with the main problem: The season starts too early and is way too long.
As dangerous as summer football practice can be, once school starts it gets downright brutal. Most high schools start classes at 7:30 a.m. and many football teams are still practicing at 7:30 p.m. How are students supposed to shower, go home, eat dinner, study and be up by 6:30 a.m. to return to school?
Football practices should be limited to no more than 90 minutes. High school games should not begin until after Labor Day and the regular season should end by mid-November.
This would leave time for a reasonable yet reduced series of playoff games to determine the state football champions.
John Vergos is co-owner of The Rendezvous and a former member of Memphis City Council.
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