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Heat protections for high school athletes in Texas are insufficient, experts say

The start of the school year is getting closer, and that means practice for fall sports like football is about to start as well.

The heat is always a concern for student-athletes in August. But this year that’s especially true, with the entire state gripped in a historic heatwave. According to some experts, however, protocols to Texas keep athletes safe from the heat could be much stronger.

Lia Assimakopoulos, a high school sports reporter for the Dallas Morning News, spoke to Texas Standard about some of the recommendations to prevent heat-related injury.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: What have experts been telling you about the risk of heat-related injury this year as it relates to high school athletes?

Lia Assimakopoulos: So this year especially, the risk is high just because of the amount of high heat days that we’ve had so far. There’s been about 30 days where the temperature has reached about 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and last year it only reached about eight or nine. So we’re definitely having a much hotter summer this season, this year. And with that, you know, these deaths are just more likely to come, these heatstroke deaths, which essentially happens when your internal body temperature reaches above 105 degrees Fahrenheit.

So because of these high heat temperatures, it’s a little harder for players to acclimate. And in that first week of practices where it’s going to be 100 degrees every day, experts are saying that, you know, it’s more likely that players could collapse. Players could experience a heatstroke because they’re not yet used to having these high conditioned sessions in that extreme heat.

What kind of changes in policy might help Texas kids playing football stay safer in the heat?

So it really boils down to three key areas:

  1. Heat acclimatization: The process of adjusting your body to the temperature, kind of ramping up practices so players can adjust to it. And that’s something that Texas already does have in place: They have a five-day period.
  2. Environmental monitoring: They recommend using the WetBulb Globe Temperature, which is just a more comprehensive way to really determine what the heat stress is, that a football player who’s active in pads feels; it’s a little more comprehensive than heat index.
  3. Emergency response: The [University Interscholastic League] does require schools to have an emergency response plan in place but does not require which emergency response plan. So the best practice is to have cold water tubs onsite prepared beforehand. And if someone were to experience that exertional heat stroke, you submerge them fully in that tub. And experts have said that, you know, when doing that, within 10 minutes of the initial collapse, it is 100% survivable.

Is this not protocol currently?

No. Currently Texas only requires the heat acclimatization portion of the protocol. A lot of other states have instituted statewide policies that require all three, and those states have seen a significant drop in in deaths and in heatstrokes, period, even those that don’t result in death.

In some circles, practicing in the heat is not necessarily a rite of passage, but young football players often expect it – and so do others who are immersed in high school football. How do these cultural forces affect player safety, or is that a thing?

I think it definitely is a thing. A lot of experts believe that the reason we see the most of these deaths occurring in fall practices is because that’s the time where players are trying out for the teams. So they’re going to the max. They’re pushing their hardest and sometimes pushing beyond their boundaries. And that’s what, you know, results in them having these heatstrokes.

And I think we’ve definitely seen progress. You know, water is no longer deprived of players in most places; it’s no longer a sign of weakness to need a break like it may used to be; two-a-days aren’t as common as they used to be. But I do think that the culture plays a big factor. And nobody wants to say when they’re not feeling well, because when you’re trying to make a team and show that you’re tough – and that’s what football is – people are more hesitant to want to say when they need help.

Is there any other advice for schools or coaches or maybe even the athletes themselves that you heard from experts about the keys to staying safe in this extreme heat?

Experts have really just encouraged coaches to know the signs and monitor their players. If you can get ahead of it and stay on top of it, all of these deaths are preventable. And just having the proper protocols and safety measures in place in case of an emergency – you know, nobody thinks it’s going to happen at their school until it does. So, you know, I think experts have just advised coaches to make sure that they’re prepared.

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