The Florida High School Athletic Association is drawing the ire of heat safety advocates and medical professionals after refusing to change its stance on life-saving equipment.
Five weeks after the state agency postponed a decision whether to mandate access to ice tubs in case of heat stroke as well as thermometers that measure heat stress, the agenda for next week’s board meeting again stops short of requiring the basic items.
That goes against the advice of the FHSAA’s own medical advisers, who spent the past five weeks supplying the FHSAA with additional requested material in support of their position, as well as widespread industry standards for combating heat illnesses.
“It is with extreme disappointment that I review the agenda items,” Pat Helma, a Cooper City chiropractor and chair of the FHSAA’s 15-person Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, wrote in an email to FHSAA board president Frank Prendergast.
“Our Committee seeks to work WITH the FHSAA to improve sports safety; however, without communication from the latter, it appears the FHSAA is moving forward with the medical opinion of its Attorney.”
Prior to the previous board meeting in late April, for which the agenda again only recommended the use of ice tubs and wet-bulb globe thermometers, the agency publicly indicated that it would only mandate their use if required to do so by Florida lawmakers.
Barring a decision by board members next week to override the agenda language and formally mandate the heat safety equipment, that may still occur.
Florida Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, whose district covers large areas of Southwest Florida, previously told The News-Press she was “very concerned” about the issue. Passidomo could not be reached for comment this week.
“In somewhat confusing strategy, it has been suggested that these policies should be initiated through our state Legislators,” Helma wrote, “when in-fact, last year the FHSAA reached out to our Committee members and suggested we craft letters of support for the FHSAA to our state Legislators essentially asking them to back off and leave the FHSAA alone to govern high school sports.
“Now the (board of directors) has been directed to ask the Legislature to tell the FHSAA what to do with a thermometer and a Rubbermaid tub?”
FHSAA spokesman Kyle Niblett noted that next week’s agenda is not yet policy.
“We anticipate there to be further discussion at next week’s Board of Directors meeting regarding the proposed policy changes,” Niblett wrote to The News-Press. “The feedback from the SMAC will be part of that discussion.”
Douglas Casa, head of the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut and one of the nation’s foremost authorities on what is known as exertional heat stroke, held out hope that the FHSAA’s position remains the result of not being “fully informed.”
“I think the lawyer’s not informed,” Casa said.
But Casa, who has met with FHSAA board members and medical advisers the past two years on heat safety policies, was equally disheartened by the agency’s position.
“Between now and 20 years from now, they’re going to require cold-water immersion tubs. It’s going to happen,” he said. “Why do we have to keep having more young kids die needlessly because you didn’t enforce a policy that would have saved them?
“It’s such a simple solution to such a serious problem.”
Heat safety experts cite a “100 percent” survivability rate in cases of heat stroke – the most severe heat illness, when core temperatures reach 104 degrees – when the person suffering is immersed in cold water within 5-10 minutes of a medical event.
Florida, meanwhile, has seen more high school athletes die from exertional heat stroke since 2010 than any other state, according to the Korey Stringer Institute, named for the former NFL offensive lineman who died from heat stroke in 2001.
Nationwide, exertional heatstroke killed an average of three football players a year at all age levels from 1995-2015, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research.
Of 61 deaths in those years, 46 were in high school, 11 in college, two in youth football and two in professional football. Ninety percent of the deaths occurred during practice.
Those numbers also are for football only, and they don’t include hospitalizations for heat illnesses that didn’t result in death or other heat events that didn’t result in hospitalizations.
In addition to declining thus far to make ice tubs and wet-bulb globe thermometers mandatory, the FHSAA also has not acted on its sports medicine advisory committee’s recommendation to make its heat safety policies apply to summer months.
Those months are left almost exclusively in the hands of individual districts and schools to regulate.
“The FHSAA seems determined not to address heat illness best practice guidelines to protect high school athletes,” said Laurie Martin Giordano, whose son, Zach Martin Polsenberg, died of exertional heat stroke last summer after collapsing at Riverdale High School football practice.
“I am confused why the FHSAA would completely disregard the recommendation of their own advisory board and the nation’s leading physicians and athletic trainers on this topic. I am also disgusted at the apathy displayed for the loss of children’s lives that will surely continue while they hold the power to prevent them.”