Football is the South’s favorite fall tradition. While the games are usually played on cool autumn nights, high schools begin their preparation in August, during the most brutal heat of the year. Unfortunately, practicing this fall sport in the dog days of summer is a dangerous and often deadly mix. Already this year two Georgia high school students have died from heat exposure during football practice – two deaths that were entirely avoidable and treatable.
Georgia high schools were allowed to begin “mandatory” outdoor football practice on Monday, August 1, in the middle of an oppressive heat wave. On Tuesday, two Georgia teenagers died after practicing in that heat. On Tuesday morning, Fitzgerald High School defensive lineman DJ Searcy, 16, died after practice with his team’s football camp in Lake City, Florida. Later in the evening, Locust Grove High School offensive lineman Forrest Jones, 16, died after passing out and spending a week in a coma after a voluntary workout with his team.
These two deaths come on the heels of a report by the CDC that nearly one-fourth of all emergency room visits for heat illness are attributable to football, and that August is the most common month for heat illness to occur. Over the past fifty years, hundreds of football players have died from heat-related illnesses – with most of those deaths coming in the first couple of days of practice.
Unfortunately, Georgia schools are not doing nearly enough to protect students. The Georgia High School Association (GHSA) and its member schools have failed to properly regulate practice in the heat in order to prevent the onset of heat-related illness. Even after these two recent deaths, Georgia high school coaches are still subjecting children to overexertion in dangerous heat conditions. Even worse, schools are not taking adequate steps to diagnose heat illness. Finally, even when heat illness is diagnosed, schools are not taking simple steps that would make death from heat illness entirely preventable. In sum, August football practices at Georgia high schools are unreasonably dangerous.
In response to Tuesday’s deaths, the GHSA shifted responsibility by noting that it requires individual schools to submit their own written policies for practicing football in the heat. The GHSA has also been conducting a study with Michael Ferrara, Ph.D. at the University of Georgia, to study the relationship between heat levels and heat illness, but that study has not yet been completed. The GHSA stated that it may implement a uniform heat policy in the future.
The GHSA began requiring heat policies from its member schools five years ago, when a Rockdale County football player suffered a heat-related death. The policies must specify the time of day practices may be held and the amount of time allotted to rest at various heat/humidity levels, as well as set a maximum heat/humidity level where outdoor practices must be terminated. Essentially, the school must implement a sliding scale related to the heat index – when the heat index is X, practice must start before Y. When the heat index reaches Z, practice must be canceled altogether or moved indoors. This is widely getting the attention of many personal injury attorneys now.