High temperatures, big football players are dangerous combination

The risk of heat-related illnesses for high-school football players is higher than ever due to record high temperatures around the country and the fact that football players these days are bigger than ever.

The combination is leading to a rise in the number of heat-related illnesses and deaths, said experts from the Union of Concerned Scientists in a news conference Thursday.

The death rate during football practice was about one death per year from 1980 to 1994 but has risen to 2.8 deaths per year since then, according to climatologist Andrew Grundstein of the University of Georgia. In recent days, one high school football coach and three players have died.

Grundstein studied 58 fatalities in detail and found that most of the deaths were among kids age 18 and occurred in the Eastern U.S. and during the first few days or weeks of practice. The majority of fatalities were among youths who were overweight or obese -- usually linemen.


A warming planet appears to be a factor. Summer temperatures this year have been among the warmest on record in many U.S. cities, said Deke Arndt, chief of the Climate Monitoring Branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Assn. National Climatic Data Center.

All-time temperature highs were set in 78 U.S. cities in July and 213 records for the warmest low temperatures were set.

“The temperature around sunrise is the warmest it has ever been,” he said.

Grundstein’s study included 33 deaths for which complete weather information was available.

“All 33 deaths we saw occurred during higher extreme risk,” he said. Risk is defined by a measure of temperature, humidity and solar radiation.

The belief that holding practice early in the morning will lower the risk of heat-related illness is incorrect because of the record-high overnight-lows being set, Grundstein said. Practice during the morning hours, while probably safer, is still not risk-free for strenuous physical activity.

“I think [coaches and players] just need to keep their guard up,” he said.

Two-a-days, while barred in the first week of football practice in colleges, still often occur in high schools, and are ill-advised in the first week or two of practice. In Grundstein’s study, 60% of the deaths occurred in the morning.

“High humidity levels can make conditions very oppressive and very stressful,” Grundstein said. “I think that explains a lot of the deaths we’re seeing.”

High school players often begin practice dehydrated and not well rested, the researchers said. They may condition only during football season and show up for the first practices out-of-shape. They are pressured by peers or coaches to do more, said Dr. Michael Bergeron, a professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of South Dakota and director of the National Institute for Athletic Health and Performance.

“The problem is a lot of things,” Bergeron said. “It’s a combination of not being fit. These kids are not acclimatized. They spend a lot of time indoors during the summer. Coaches have a limited amount of time to get these athletes in shape. . .Oftentimes they go too hard, too long.”

Coaches need to assess climate conditions, including morning temperature and humidity, call plenty of breaks, practice the players without full gear and know the signs and symptoms of heat-related illness. In addition, coaches should have an emergency-response plan that includes a cooling tub, a way to move a stricken player and a safety plan that makes a clear path for an ambulance.

“Clearly there needs to be better monitoring,” Bergeron said. “All of these heat exertion deaths are preventable.”

Guidelines for safe practice in hot weather are available through the American College of Sports Medicine and the National Athletic Trainers’ Assn. The American Academy of Pediatrics will release recommendations on heat-related illness risk and physical activity in children on Aug. 8.

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