Sports programs in the states of the Northern Climes face a new adversary: ​​burning

Bigfork, Mont. — On a recent afternoon, it was a crisp 70 degrees on the football field at the high school in this northwest Montana community 200 miles south of the U.S.-Canada border.

Vikings head coach Jim Benn was running his team through drills in early fall weather, without much interruption. Just a few weeks ago, though, players needed frequent water breaks as they sweated through temperatures in the low to mid-90s, about 15 degrees warmer than this time of year.

Although temperatures are starting to drop now that fall is underway, Montana and other states in the northern United States are getting hotter — and will stay hotter longer. According to the National Weather Service and other meteorologists, August is when many high school sports begin, and this year was at or near the warmest on record for many communities across Montana. The heat wave extended into September, and at least six Montana cities broke the 100-degree mark in the first half of the month.

This August was the warmest on record in the nearby states of Idaho, Washington and Oregon. Nationwide, this summer was the third-warmest on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

Health experts and researchers say states — particularly northern U.S. states such as Idaho, Maine, Montana and North Dakota — are not adapting fast enough to keep high school athletes safe. Students and their families sued the school, accusing it of not doing enough to protect athletes. Many states that have taken action only after the athlete has died have done so.

“Between high school and college, we lose about six athletes every year to exertional heatstroke, and most of them are high school athletes,” said Rebecca Stearns, chief operating officer of the University of Connecticut’s Cory Stringer Institute, which is named after a Minnesota man who died of heatstroke in 2001. After the Vikings player. The institute studies and tries to prevent the situation.

He said the actual number of heat-related deaths could be higher, as death certificates are not always filled out correctly. He said exercise-induced heat illness is the second leading cause of death in high school and college athletes behind cardiac arrest.

At Bigfork, Ben said he hadn’t seen one of his athletes develop an exertional heat illness — such as heat exhaustion or heatstroke, which can cause fainting, vomiting and even death — until the record-breaking 2021 heatwave in Montana during his nearly 30-year coaching career. An athlete overheated at a summer football camp.

“We immediately gave him water, cooled him down,” he said.

The player recovered after spraying with a hose. Ben said he didn’t have an immersion tub filled with ice water on hand, which Stearns said is the recommended treatment.

“This is exactly why we need standard policies that include medical best practices,” Stearns said.

The Corey Stringer Institute ranks all 50 states and Washington, D.C., based on how well they follow practices for preventing and responding to exercise-induced heat illness among high school athletes, as well as other health risks such as cardiac arrest. Montana is 48th on the list, followed by Minnesota, Maine and California.

California is last, according to the institute’s report, as the only state that does not regulate high school athletic trainers, which are generally responsible for the health and safety of athletes. Stearns said the institute is working with California sports officials who are pushing for legislation requiring athletic trainers to be licensed.

The bottom third of the institute’s rankings are states in the northern United States. Stearns said many states the institute has approached about improving heat protection think it’s not a problem or resist some policies because implementing them could come with a hefty price tag.

But some efforts don’t cost a penny, he said. At Bigfork High School, for example, Ben implemented a three-day adaptation period without football pads, when his players returned to the field in early August. “It’s really low-hanging fruit from my perspective,” Stearns said.

Stearns added that most heat-related illnesses occur in the first days of practice, which are usually the hottest and when athletes are not used to exerting themselves in the heat. But he said the state high school sports association should mandate a deadline to adapt.

Montana and many other states don’t have systems in place to dictate when exercises need to be modified — for example, by removing pads or reducing the length and number of workouts — or scrapping altogether, Stearns said. Policies requiring emergency planning to respond to excess heat illness are also absent in many northern states.

Stearns and other researchers like Bud Cooper of the University of Georgia say states should use what’s known as a “wet bulb globe temperature” — which accounts for air temperature, humidity and radiant heat from surfaces that absorb sunlight. to make those determinations instead of heat indices. The heat index does not account for radiant heat, which increases the risk of heat illness. The National Federation of State High School Associations Foundation said in February it was sending 5,000 special thermometers to high schools across the country.

Stearns says studies suggest that exercise reduces the number of heat-related illnesses by 55%, and that those that have used wet bulb globe temperatures to mandate changes in practice have seen an 80% reduction.

In Georgia, Cooper’s work documenting heat-related deaths among high school athletes led to policy changes in 2012. Since the policy change, Georgia has gone from being the state with the highest number of heat-related deaths among high school football players. There is no death

Researchers like Cooper have begun providing regional policy guidelines based on local average wet bulb globe temperatures to help states understand the risks to high school athletes and give them a starting point for changing their policies.

New Jersey was among the early adopters of wet bulb systems among northern US states when it passed a law in 2020 requiring school districts to purchase thermometers. Hundreds of schools in the state are required to keep cold immersion tubs on site when temperatures reach a certain level. The state is now second only to Florida and Georgia in the Institute for Sports Safety Policy’s ranking.

In the Pacific Northwest, Oregon and Washington have policies that force changes to school sports practices based on the heat index, not the wet-bulb globe temperature. Heat and sports safety researchers say it’s better than nothing.

The Montana High School Association, which regulates high school athletics, has implemented heat guidelines that allow referees to call for extra timeouts during football or soccer games, executive director Brian Michelotti said. The association calls for other sports such as cross-country running to meet earlier in the day.

A photo shows members of the Bigfork Vikings football team practicing together on the field.
Bigfork Vikings High School football team players run through practice on a crisp fall afternoon after a week of practice in record-breaking heat.(Aaron Bolton for KHN)

Although Montana health officials say the state has not documented heat illness-related deaths among the state’s high school athletes, historic heat waves over the past two summers have athletic officials considering extra caution. “It really encouraged us to discuss it more and really come back and rethink with some of the sports science committees,” Michelotti said.

He said any policy change would have to be approved by the association’s seven-member board and would not happen until at least next year.

Heat and sports safety experts like Stearns of the Corey Stringer Institute say adding statewide policies and mandates saves lives by ensuring all coaches and schools are following best practices before deaths occur.

“A life is too valuable for all the games in a season,” he said.

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