NFL attempts to beat the heat

Under the new collective bargaining agreement, NFL players have gained more health protections. Contact drills are allowed only once a day, for instance, to help players keep cool during triple-digit days. Enlarge photo

Associated Press file

Under the new collective bargaining agreement, NFL players have gained more health protections. Contact drills are allowed only once a day, for instance, to help players keep cool during triple-digit days.

Blistering heat, drenching humidity and ultraphysical work. Hardly ideal conditions.

Yet that, in a nutshell, is what an NFL training camp is all about.

As temperatures soar into triple digits, everyone from trainers and doctors to coaches and players will be more aware than ever how to deal with the physical and mental challenges of camp. The collective bargaining agreement ensured there would be even more protection for players, and this is the first full training camp since that deal was reached last year.

“A big part of the negotiations, and appropriately so, was devoted to player safety,” says Ray Anderson, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations. “Both parties came to agree on good guidelines for how our players can get optimum protection.”

Those guidelines are sure to be tested from coast to coast.

The CBA that ended the lockout last August eliminated two-a-day contact practices. All second workouts during training camp must be walkthroughs: no helmets, with plays executed at a walking pace.

Practice sessions are limited to four hours in total per day, with none lasting longer than three hours of on-field activity. At least a three-hour break is required between sessions, and the walkthrough can come first or second during a day.

There also is no contact permitted and no pads worn during the second and third days of camp as players get into what can be a long – and dangerous – grind.

Every team must take five days off during camp, whether that is when they are at an out-of-town location or their own practice facility. For every seven days of work, one day off is required, and it can’t be delayed so a team trains for 14 days and then gets two days off.

Long gone are the days of the Lombardis and Landrys and Halases, with double, three-hour practices in pads, few breaks, limited water and a succession of botched plays being rerun until they are perfect. Coaches are not expected to accept mediocrity, but they aren’t supposed to use practice to punish.

“These guys come to camp in terrific shape; they work out year-round,” says Dr. Patrick Kersey, one of the Indianapolis Colts’ team doctors and USA Football’s medical director. “So the need to work them extensively for conditioning, we have evolved beyond that.”

Many of the protection modifications in the CBA already had been adapted by the Colts, whose center, Jeff Saturday, is on the players’ union executive board. Saturday now is with Green Bay.

“I think what’s most important is anything that aids in the health and safety with players is paramount, so you are addressing issues with heat, with contact – these guys are getting bigger and stronger and faster. Anything that can limit injury while not limiting performance is invaluable,” Kersey said.

That once seemed a difficult combination to achieve, but everyone in the NFL apparently is discovering that less is more when practice fields become sweat boxes.

“The sense of some coaches who think that all this extra work, it toughens you up, weeds out the guys who won’t be able to measure up, I think that is just a myth,” said Dr. Thom Mayer, the NFL Players Association’s medical director. “So we’re eliminating the punitive level of contact.”

While head trauma and concussions remain the hottest topic in player safety, heat illness is the biggest fear during the summer.

It’s been 11 years since Vikings tackle Korey Stringer died of exertional heat stroke after a practice. In 2010, the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education was established, operating independently but with a working relationship with the NFL. It’s main charge: spreading awareness of the dangers of heat illness.

Dr. Douglas J. Casa, chief scientist at the institute, is encouraged by the proactive steps taken by the league and the NFLPA to enhance safety in that area.

“We’ve definitely seen a change when it comes to the heat illness issue,” Casa says. “NFL teams are doing an excellent job in hydrating their players and taking the steps for treating heat exhaustion. Quantum leaps have been made at all levels and people are a lot more sensitive at all levels.”

That doesn’t mean the dangers have diminished.

“We are seeing much more sensitivity to the heat, to hydration, to fatigue, to days off, to rest and down time,” Anderson says. “We all know we must make sure fatigue doesn’t become a potential killer.”

Heat can be a killer on all levels of the sport. There’s a tremendous trickle-down effect from what the pros do – to the colleges, to the high schools and to youth football. That also applies to other health problems NFL players deal with.

Casa notes that hydration guidelines adapted by the NCAA in 2003 and the NFL last year are now being either examined or implemented at the high school level.

Baseline concussion testing is now required for all players in the league, and even down to the youngest football organizations, there’s a movement to do the same. Thanks to PACE (Protecting Athletes Through Concussion Education), a program founded by Dick’s Sporting Goods Foundation, free concussion testing is happening for more than 3,300 middle and high schools and youth sports organizations across America.

“It’s a place to make huge strides,” said Saints star quarterback Drew Brees, a spokesman for the program. “Help to educate those who play the games and the parents of young athletes in ways to identify and recognize and treat your injuries and get you back on field 100 percent and safe and sound.” Casa also mentions a greater diligence with drug testing and even the punishments in the Saints bounty scandal as positive steps in keeping players safe.

“That sends an important message to the players that this conduct can lead to something more than fines, like suspensions, and it must stop,” Casa says.

One major problem that could impact player safety this summer is the lockout of the on-field officials. Members of the NFL Referees Association claim the replacements the league is bringing in are not qualified to handle NFL games, jeopardizing the players.

The NFLPA’s Mayer is concerned.

“I don’t know how to look at the type of officials they are talking about using and not raise the issue of if there will be health and safety issues,” Mayer says. “We will be monitoring that closely during the preseason.”

Generally, though, the outlook for meeting the health challenges of a blistering July and August appears to be positive – in great part because the NFL has not had any catastrophic incidents in recent camps.

“The players have shown they are more concerned about their own health and the health of teammates, and they are being proactive when they see something that might be a problem,” Anderson says. “They are taking care of themselves and taking care of each other.”