NH high school athletes safe? Survey says …

The sun was beating down on the Nashua High School North football practice field on Wednesday morning, and an assistant coach was right on top of things.

“You guys have been working hard, really hard,” he said. “Drink plenty of water, lots of water.”

One exit down the Everett Turnpike, the Nashua South players were under the same bright, warm sun, and South assistant coach and head lacrosse coach Bill Monsen was saying, “Safety is probably the most important part of being a coach, looking out for the safety of your players. We take that really serious and the athletic director Lisa (Gingras) does a great job making sure we’re doing the right thing.”

So how safe are student athletes in New Hampshire? Good question, and it’s one that is up for debate.

They may be doing the right things in Nashua, but not necessarily around some other parts of the state, according to a study conducted by the Korey Stringer Institute, a sports safety watchdog based at the University of Connecticut.

The group released its safety findings for high school athletes at a press conference Tuesday at, of all places, the National Football League offices in New York.

Evidently the NFL partially sponsors the Institute, which of course takes the heat off of all the concussion/CTE criticism its received, right?

Sorry if we’re a bit jaded. The findings ranked New Hampshire 44th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia in terms of implementing key safety guidelines.

“That’s not where we should be or where we want to be,” New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association Jeff Collins said. “That was based on our what our requirements are, not our guidelines. … A lot of it is based on past practices.”

There’s all sorts of categories, but the main one appears to be dealing with heat, but the study also addressed cardiac arrest, head trauma and other issues.

Locally, these all seem to be dealt with in an ongoing process. Let’s face it, the concussion issue alone has brought safety to the forefront, not just in football but in all sports at all levels, not just high school. Of course, the timing of the report is interesting with regard to New Hampshire as football practices began Wednesday.

“No matter what the summer is, (practice) is almost always the hottest two weeks of the year, with the mugginess,” North coach Dante Laurendi said. “But we’re always kind of heads up. We always have a trainer, and the district and our athletic director (Gingras) will give us the heads up, ‘Hey it’s going to be really hot’. I think it was a year or two ago we were inside, not because of rain but because of the heat index thing.”

And late this past March, a night practice at Stellos Stadium for North boys lacrosse was scrapped because of extreme cold.

“We basically just look at the forecast beforehand, communicate with the athletic director, and decide whether it’s indoor or outdoor,” Monsen said.

North Carolina was rated the state that did the best job of adopting the Institute’s safety guidelines at 79 percent. Kentucky was next at 71. Both states that are sweltering this time of year.

But don’t worry, New Hampshire, the worst states were Colorado (23 percent) and California (26). The others between those two and New Hampshire were Kansas, Wyoming, Minnesota, Montana and Iowa.

Some states have complained they never took part in any study. Collins wasn’t complaining, but said the NHIAA didn’t realize there would be any kind of ranking.

He said the NHIAA had been working with KSI well before this, recommending and implementing many of their guidelines after hearing them at a national convention.

“At least one state has adopted each individual item, and for many items, more than half of the states have the policy in place,” Dr. Douglas Casa of KSI reportedly said on Tuesday. “So this tells us it is feasible. Now we need to collectively get states to learn from their colleagues.”

Are there any perfect answers or guidelines? Of course not. Here, coaches say they are constantly taking online safety courses, more so their first year. Some certifications are every other year. Every year, Monsen said, they have to take a “Heat and Wellness” exam. “And be certified for that before you can even begin coaching,” he said. “You learn hydration levels and the impact the heat has on players. It’s crazy. (Football) is like an inverse of lacrosse. You start in the heat and end in the cold, the opposite of lacrosse.”

South head football coach Scott Knight says football practices have changed. The Panthers switched to a different rugby style tackling near the shoulder and hip, “a different style where the head isn’t as involved in the tackle.” He said only one player in the entire program suffered from a concussion last year.

Knight says you keep athletes completely hydrated, “but the other thing you have to stress is nutrition. A lot of these kids don’t eat breakfast, so you have to stress proper hydration. … If they learn to put the right things in their body, and we can ease them into it, we don’t have any problems.”

You wonder if this may mean the days of double sessions for all fall sports may come to an end, while coaches try to squeeze in practices in limited time as seasons start earlier and earlier. Heck, they are outlawed now in the NFL.

You can agree or disagree with some of their findings, but it’s good that KSI exists. Bottom line?

“You can’t be too careful,” Laurendi said. “Always err on the side of caution, and play it safe.”

Tom King can be reached at 594-1251, tking@nashuatelegraph.com., or @Telegraph_TomK.