NSBORO parents asking MIAA to codify health of student athletes as a priority

by beth on November 24, 2020

Post image for NSBORO parents asking MIAA to codify health of student athletes as a priority

Above: A group of parents from Northborough and Southborough are asking local and state athletics to take seriously whether the condition of fields is a hazard to the safety of players. (image cropped from pic posted to flickr by Bill Kleb)

The state’s high school athletic association is reviewing policies for 2021-2023. A group of Southborough and Northborough parents are asking to incorporate student safety as an important factor. It’s a proposal that is meeting resistance, though (currently) without explanation.

In 2020, it would be natural to assume “student safety” refers to Covid safety measures. In fact, requested policy changes pre-date the pandemic and revolve around field conditions. One of the parents explains that she got involved after games were held in weather that contributed to multiple students getting injured on the same day. 

Southborough’s Lisa Dunderdale explained that she and the other four parents all have experienced having a child injured through school athletics. They also witnessed poor field conditions and questioned decisions made by the adults who decide game play or sportsmanship on the field.

In trying to understand how decisions to play were made, Dunderdale learned that schools’ athletic departments mainly defer to MIAA guidelines. She asserted some of those rules are ambiguous.

Dunderdale is one of five parents of students/alumni asking the MIAA to codify that student safety, including considering the safety conditions of the fields, must be a factor in determining whether or not to cancel a game.

While the origin of Dunderdale’s interest was personal, she no longer has a child in high school. Now, her interest is in helping stop avoidable injuries for current and future student athletes. In trying to work with the NSBORO District and MIAA she has found that change is slow. She posited that things often don’t change since parents move on when their students graduate and incidents end up quickly forgotten.

Dunderdale stressed to me that injured- athletes are affected both physically and emotionally when they can no longer play and be as socially active in their school community. (That’s a point that should be clear to proponents of high school athletics who have been pushing for athletics during a pandemic, making similar arguments about students’ emotional welfare.)

Yet, so far, MIAA committees reviewing rule changes have shown resistance.

Rule changes were voted on by 20 committees (17 specific sports and 3 administrative.) Most of the proposed changes were rejected by almost all of the committees. Only one received support from close to half of the committees, with more voting against.* So far, no data has been shared with proponents explaining the reasons given by committees for their decisions.

Those votes were just a preliminary step in the MIAA’s decision process. The final decision will be made in the spring.

Below is an overview of the four rule changes proposed by Northborough-Southborough parents, Lisa Dunderdale, Michael Hartnett, Gretchen Hartnett, Theresa Lee, and Anupama Sehgal. (You can view the full text in this pdf.**) I included the votes cast in the first round of the decision process.

1. Coaches Code of Ethics

The current rule states “Each high school coach is first a TEACHER.” . . . “Every student-athlete should be treated as though they were the coach’s own children. Their welfare must be uppermost at all times”. 

The proposal would have added a ninth item to a list of guidelines, stating:

A coach shall promote and advocate for the health and safety of the student athletes at all times, above all other factors.

Committee votes: 9 approved, 10 denied, 1 tied

4. Providing a Safe Environment for Regular Season Contests – New Rule

32.1- The Athletic Director is responsible for site safety during the regular season contests: determining the safety of the site for home and visiting student-athletes and fans; preparing the site for competition; ensuring emergency procedures are reviewed with visiting coaches and officials prior to the start of a contest; must have an AED on-site (and accessible) or with their medical provider for all athletic events; report any unusual incidences and all injuries.

The intro is followed by four subsections defining rules for postponement, including that host schools’ administrator/Athletic Director (not coaches) should determine if weather dictates cancellation, and that field conditions and student health and welfare are considerations. 

Rationale:

The MIAA handbook clearly strives to include the student-athlete’s personal safety as a high priority, including sections on “Thunder/Lightening”, “Blood Borne Pathogens”, “Medical Emergency Response”, “Missing/Damaged organs”, “Concussions”, and ‘Drug/Alcohol/Tobacco” but doesn’t have a policy for site safety guidelines and protocols to help mitigate the risk of injuries for the student-athletes during the regular season. By creating this section with guidance from existing MIAA policies for Tournaments, the 11/18/2020 6 adults responsible for conducting secondary school sports will be aware of each other’s roles in making decisions and working together to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the student athletes.

Committee votes: 1 approved, 18 denied, 1 tied

44. Part VIII, Rule 92: Game Officials – Policies and Procedure

Replace:

The Game Officials Committee shall establish official’s fees for MIAA sponsored tournament competition.

With:

The Officials have charge of the game from the opening whistle on, and have the responsibility to determine the safety of the field/court/or location of athletic contest – and have the authority to postpone the game, or delay the contest until such time as the location is considered safe for play. Officials will be guided by the National Federation rules for the year in determining whether or not the game should be stopped. (Example: Playing conditions are unfair or dangerous for players, darkness, etc.) Referees would notify both head coaches of the decision, and their decisions would not be subject to negotiation.

Rationale:

This specifically states officials have the authority after the start of a contest to determine if a contest needs to be postponed, delayed, or stopped due to unsafe conditions and it would be logical for it to follow rule 92.16 Postponement and Forfeiture. The added rule identifies the role of officials and allows for all responsible adults who conduct secondary school sports to work together for the safety of the student-athlete.

Committee votes: 19 denied, 1 tied

45. Part IX, Rule 99: Tournament Administration and Accountability

Insert the bolded text below:

The following must be the considerations for postponing a tournament activity: Health and welfare of the student-athletes; conditions of the field/court or location of the athletic contest; comfort and safety of the fans; travel conditions for participants and fans; alternative scheduling options; and financial implications.

Rationale:

The condition of a field /court and location safety is a consideration for postponing a tournament and regular season contest.

Committee votes: 19 denied, 1 tied

Decision rationale and process

Dunderdale told me that when she asked an MIAA rep for the reasoning behind the votes, she was told that he couldn’t capture those conversations. However, the committee’s forms indicate they are meant to provide rationale for each vote. (I’ll be following up and let you know if I am able to get that to share.)

The next stage in the decision process is for MIAA to forward packets with the committees’ votes  to members of the Massachusetts Secondary School Athletic Directors Association. The MSSADA will make its own vote by February 1st.

Next up will be the MIAA District Athletic Committees, with a vote due by March 1st. Then, the MIAA Board of Directors will “act on proposals” by May 15th. Finally, The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Council will make the final decisions by June 1st.

*Within each of the MIAA committee, votes were split on each proposal. While committee decisions aere almost universally against the changes, about 20% votes cast were in favor. Meanwhile, the first proposal had votes closer in keeping with the committee decision outcomes (43% in favor and 51% against).

**The 8 page pdf I shared above only includes pages relevant to changes proposed by Northborough-Southborough parents. For the full 52 packet including all of the rule changes proposed this year, click here.)

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tim Martel November 25, 2020 at 1:31 PM

It would have been interesting to read about the underlying reasons for the denials. Though I can take a shot at the “why”.

1. Coaching Code of Ethics: I’m wondering if the phrase, “at all times”, was behind the reason for denying the proposal. To be fair, the coach is not responsible for the athlete’s health and safety during the off-season, when not at structured activities, etc.

4. Safe Environment: reads like an attempt to get an athletic director fired or sued in the event of player injury. also, you want to put officials in charge of being able to cancel an event for which their payment is guaranteed?

44. Game Officials: same issue as above but explicitly worse.

46. Tournament Admin: the big problem is that this is subjective with no established criteria to make consistent decisions across the districts. it will also put schools in the position where they may be required to update facilities to the point where it cannot be afforded – thus canceling the sport altogether for that district. which opens up economic-baed discrimination lawsuits. this is a can of worms that no one wants to open.

Reply

2 Lisa Dunderdale November 28, 2020 at 11:18 AM

Tim, I appreciate your feedback on the rule change proposals. I too would have liked the committees’ feedback on the denials so we could understand what might be lacking for follow up on these proposals for next round. Your “shot at why” creates a great opportunity to open the discussion for all involved.

Yes, litigation is always a possibility. The rulebook states the importance of promoting the health and safety of students-athletes, therefore the importance of better preparing and providing guidelines for the adults who conduct athletic events.

If you haven’t looked at the MIAA rulebook, and I encourage all parents of student athletes to review it, it is the guide for our Athletic Directors, Coaches and Officials to help them understand their role in providing a safe athletic events for student-athletes and fans along with rules for eligibility, sports rules, and more. You will find that much of the proposed rule “Providing a Safe Environment for Regular Season Contests” is taken from the established rules under Tournaments but with an emphasis on preparation for regular season contests and improving communication among the adults who are responsible for conducting secondary school sports.

The proposals for Officials to have charge of the game after the start of the game was found in a document on the MIAA website and we were told by school administrators – “As for the cancellation of a game once it has started, this is canceled through officials to our best knowledge.” We felt it was important to have this established in the rulebook.

Point taken on officials being paid and then postponing or canceling games but no one seems to know who is responsible. And I’m an optimist believing officials would have safety in mind. The rule book places the responsibility on the Athletic Director of the host school to determine if they should hold the game almost 3 hours before the start of the game and doesn’t allow coaches to make the call prior to the start of or during the game without having to forfeit. Field/ facility conditions can easily change. After inquiry at the school and MIAA and no clear rule found in the rule book as to who can cancel once the game has started, then who is left to make the decision if the environment is unsafe and puts our children at much greater risk for injury? What checks and balances can be put in place- does it have to be in the hands of one person? Is it worth putting our kids at risk physically and emotionally with a sports injury when the event could be postponed?

There should be written procedures for the adults who make decisions for our student-athletes as a reference. It will take time to make changes and I believe it make sense to have established protocols, operating procedures, and defined roles for the adults to whom we entrust our kids within the MIAA rule book and even separately in a school’s athletic department operating manual.

I invite you, parents, students, and all involved with our student-athletes to advocate for injury prevention with school administrators and help establish criteria for a safe environment to mitigate injury risk for student athletes. Please add your thoughts and if anyone is interested in continuing the conversation offline, please contact me at lldunderdale@gmail.com.

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