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Proposed bill aims to curb football head injuries in Illinois

There will be forum Feb. 11 VernHills High School discuss proposed legislatithaims limit head injuries high school junior high football

There will be a forum on Feb. 11 at Vernon Hills High School to discuss proposed legislation that aims to limit head injuries in high school and junior high football by cutting full-contact practice to once per week. | Mark Ukena~For Sun-Times Media

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What: Community forum on football head injuries

Who: Hosted by state Rep. Carol Sente, D-Vernon Hills, 59th District

When: 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 11

Where: Vernon Hills High School library, 145 Lakeview Parkway

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VERNON HILLS — State Rep. Carol Sente, D-Vernon Hills, said she thinks a bill that aims to curb head injuries in student athletes is good, but doesn’t go far enough.

The Illinois General Assembly passed a bill in 2011 requiring high schools to remove student athletes from competition if they have or appear to have concussion-related symptoms, stipulating that only a licensed doctor can then clear the athlete to return.

But Sente proposes a bill that would limit high school and middle school football programs to only one full-contact practice per week.

Before she encourages colleagues to act upon the legislation, however, Sente hopes to open a dialogue with constituents from the 59th district.

A community forum on head injuries in football will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 11, in the Vernon Hills High School library, 145 Lakeview Parkway.

Sente introduced the bill to stem conversation and create a head start if she chooses to push it through the legislative process. The bill mirrors article 24 of the 2011-2020 National Football League’s collective bargaining agreement. A Virginia senator proposed similar legislation this month allowing only two full-contact practices a week.

Sente said she’s willing to modify the language or abandon the topic altogether depending on what she learns in the next month, including at the Feb. 11 forum.

Neurologist Lawrence Robbins, who operates a headache clinic in Northbrook, initiated the idea when he approached Sente as a constituent with a concern.

“Multiple concussions are definitely a problem in any sport,” Robbins said. “However, I get a lot of patients who didn’t have a concussion but still suffer from debilitating injuries.”

Robbins recently conducted research for about a year, focusing on multiple contusions as a result of organized football. He learned that on average a youth football player encounters 100 hits to the head per year, while high school football players get an average of 700 blows to the head per year.

By the time a life-long football player graduates high school, Robbins said he would have experienced 8,000 blows to the head – most of which occurred at practice.

“I went from a position of trying to make the game safer to wanting rid of it all together,” Robins said. “Because that’s unlikely, I decided I should do what I can to prevent head injuries because no matter how small they are, they add up.”

Robbins took the matter to Sente,because he said any regulation would have to be statewide for high schools or NCAA-wide for colleges. Otherwise, limiting practice for some but not others would create an unfair advantage.

Mundelein High School Athletic Director Perry Wilhelm said more injuries occur at practice because more students are participating and for longer than a typical 60-minute game.

Admittedly, Wilhelm said football is a physical game that can lead to injuries, but the athletes won’t be able to learn with only one day of full-contact practice.

“All coaches are concerned about concussions and other head injuries,” Wilhelm said. “They contribute to the moral development of these kids and would never put a kid in harms way, not to mention overworking a kid or letting a kid play hurt negatively affects the team’s performance.”

Wilhelm also said his athletes have a schedule that balances physical contact and game strategy.

On Monday, players hear presentations on an opponents’ scouting report; Tuesdays include typical hard hitting practice drills; less intense routine drills based on position are Wednesdays; light walk through-reviews are Fridays before competitive games Fridays; Saturdays include film sessions.

“We can’t take any more contact out of that schedule,” Wilhelm said. “Nobody really goes hard everyday. If we did, we wouldn’t have teams healthy enough to compete on Fridays.”

Vernon Hills High School Athletic Director Brian McDonald is also opposed to limiting practices.

“I don’t think that’s the solution, but starting a dialogue generates solutions,” McDonald said. “This is actually more than just a football topic because we had a bunch of kids get knocked out playing basketball this year.”

Teaching proper technique is McDonald’s solution. He said changing the punishments for unfair, unsafe, and dirty plays would create an incentive for change.

“In the case of football, stop issuing 15-yard penalties when guys lead with their heads,” McDonald said. “Instead, make the individual sit for a quarter or a half. Losing a key player will make coaches really, really teach proper hitting.”

McDonald used basketball as a good comparison: any player who commits six penalties is ejected from the game.

“Basketball has smaller teams, so every player is crucial,” McDonald said. “The same urgency would apply in football though. I feel bad putting the onus on the officials, but they’re the only objective authority in this whole situation.”

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