Sunday, May 30, 2010

If you can't stand the heat....postpone the game

A recent NYSPHSAA ruling is a step in right direction to protecting athletes from the heat, but it’s not perfect

William Montgomery
The Record

(This column will appear in Monday's edition of The Record).

Saratoga Springs track and field athletes take refuge from the sun under an umbrella at Thursday's Section II Class A track and field championships at Shenendehowa High School. (Photos by Mike McMahon - The Record).

When a girls lacrosse game and track and field meet were postponed Wednesday by the New York State Public High School Athletic Association’s recent heat index procedures, my mind flashed back to the morning of August 1, 2001.

The day before, Minnesota Vikings lineman Korey Stinger ran through drills in full pads at training camp as the heat index – a meteorological tool that combines air temperature and relative humidity to explain how hot it really feels – soared to 110 degrees. Stringer died early in the morning of August 1 due to complications from heat stroke and the news sent shockwaves through the athletic community.

Later that day – I was a soon-to-be junior in high school at the time – I went to session No. 3 of a week-long football camp and can still clearly remember the grizzled, tough-guy coaches who were shaken by the story.

Stringer’s death opened the eyes of coaches, athletes and trainers to the importance of hydration and the dangers of holding games and practices in oppressively hot and sunny conditions. At most high schools in the area, coaches, without a second thought, allow players quick breaks for a gulp of water whenever they feel the need during practice.

Yet on May 1, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association passed a heat index procedure (and a wind chill procedure for late autumn events) that prohibits teams from taking the field if the heat index reaches 96 degrees or above, according to accuweather.com.

The NYSPHSAA has three levels of recommendations for coaches if the heat index is 95 degrees or below. Some suggestions include scheduling practices for later in the day when temperatures are lower, removing layers of padding for players and including mandatory water breaks every 15 minutes.

However, if the heat index reaches 96, "no outside activity, practice or contest should be held," reads the official document. "Inside activity should be held only if air-conditioned."

Wednesday, record-setting heat enveloped the Capital Region. The Section II Class A girls track and field meet at Queensbury High School was postponed until Friday after the heat index soared over 100 degrees, based on the zip code entered into accuweather.com.

For track and field, which often lacks ample shade for the hundreds of athletes assembled to compete at a meet, the ruling makes sense. For other sports, however, the hard-and-fast ruling left some scratching their heads.

Three Section II girls lacrosse championship games were schedule on the University at Albany’s John Fallon Field, an artificial turf surface. The first game, which was supposed to start at 3:30 p.m., was postponed until Thursday. The other two games were played as scheduled.

Still, the synthetic rubber crumbs in a FieldTurf surface absorb more heat from the sun and make the field feel much hotter than a dirt or grass field. Checking the University at Albany’s zip code on accuweather.com’s does not give an accurate reflection of the true heat index the athletes must have felt on the scorching plastic field.

For the safety of the athletes, perhaps all of the games should have been postponed by relying on common sense and not just a number on a website.

At the sectional softball games played at Veeder Park in Colonie, athletes were directed to their dugouts around 2:30 p.m. when the heat index reached 96. Ten minutes later, an official refreshed the accuweather.com page and found that the heat index had dropped at least one degree, allowing the players to resume warming up for their games in a moment of bizarre bureaucratic rigidity.

Baseball and softball games provide built-in water breaks between every inning and shaded dugouts. These factors should not be ignored in considering whether or not to postpone a game.

The safety of high school athletes should be paramount on the minds of all coaches and administrators. The NYSPHSAA’s recent ruling, however, is nothing but an arbitrary system that could stand to incorporate sport-by-sport refinements.

Albany High School's University at Albany-bound sprinter Kareem Morris stays hydrated during Thursday's Section II Class A track and field meet at Shenendehowa High School.

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