AUGUSTA, Maine — How much contact is too much in high school football?

That topic came up before the Maine Principals’ Association football committee this week in the form of a position paper released Sunday by the National Federation of State High School Associations Concussion Summit Task Force.

That 24-member task force, chaired by Portland-based sports medicine and concussion specialist Dr. William Heinz, developed a series of fundamentals for minimizing head impact exposure and concussion risk in football.

“What we’ve done is come out with these recommendations and guidelines, and we want every state association to look through them and figure out what works for their state association,” Heinz said after he reported on the task force’s findings to the MPA football committee on Monday. “I don’t think we can dictate to every state how to do something … but we can give them guidelines and recommendations on what we think is best practice.”

Many of the recommendations focused on the players’ full-contact exposure rates during practices and games, with suggested limits for each situation throughout a football season.

“If you think about concussions as being a cumulative event, meaning that it’s not one hit that causes a concussion as it is multiple hits added together that contribute to a concussion, by following that what we found is that the more exposures you have the greater your risk for concussion,” Heinz, a member of the MPA’s sports medicine committee, said.

“To limit that, you’d have to limit the number of hits, and that can be in practicing by limiting the number of full-contact practices you have during the week or in a game by limiting the number of quarters that you play in games,” he continued.

The task force recommended full contact be allowed in no more than two to three practices per week and that consideration be given to limiting full contact on consecutive days as well as limiting full-contact time during practices to no more than 30 minutes per day and 60 to 90 minutes per week.

“A big part of the issue here is that we don’t have good data to say that only two contact practices are OK and three aren’t OK. We really don’t know that information, so we don’t want to come out and put on restrictions that we’re going to have to backpedal on in the future,” Heinz said.

“But it sends a message to the parents that we’re paying attention to it and something’s being done,” he added.

The position paper acknowledged that more full-contact opportunities may be needed during preseason practices than during the regular season to allow for teaching blocking and tackling techniques with sufficient repetition.

The task force did recommend that on days when teams hold multiple practice sessions that only one of those sessions include full contact.

“We don’t want to have unintended consequences because we haven’t trained a player well enough so that when they get into a game situation they don’t know what to do or how to hit properly or tackle properly,” Heinz said. “There still is an essence of football that we have to maintain. It’s a full-contact sport, there’s no getting around that.”

Another recommendation offered by the task force would have state associations consider establishing a policy that limits the number of game quarters in which a player may participate in a given week.

“In game situations, the risk of concussion is significantly higher than in practice,” Heinz said, citing the heightened intensity of games.

In a survey conducted by by the Montana High School Association, 17 of 36 responding states, which included Maine, had not yet established a limit of game quarters for a player during a week or season.

Other responses varied greatly, ranging between four and 10 quarters in a week with some states establishing quarter limits per season.

The most frequent response among the state associations that participated in the survey was six quarters per week in five states.

Such quarter limits often would be geared more toward younger players who might see game action in sub-varsity and varsity contests during the same week — a practice not uncommon in Maine, particularly at the small-school level, where depth can become an issue because of low overall participation numbers and attrition throughout the season.

“What we worry about are those individuals that are playing at multiple levels,” Heinz said. “They’re playing at varsity and sub-varsity levels and so they get lots of exposure, more than just say your senior that’s only playing defense at the varsity level.

“We have to be very concerned about those individuals that they don’t get more exposure than they really need to have, and that’s why we talk about limiting the number of quarters and limiting the number of contact practices throughout the week,” he continued.

After Heinz’s presentation, the MPA football committee voiced its support for recommending limits of three practices with full contact and six quarters of game action for a player each week. That panel also referred the issue to the association’s sports medicine committee for its consideration.

Avatar photo

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...