An outline for safety in contact sports

  • Don Grossnickle

    Don Grossnickle

  • Kenneth Jennings

    Kenneth Jennings

By Don Grossnickle and Kenneth Jennings
Guest columnists
Posted10/23/2017 1:00 AM

High school sports that place tender spinal cord and brains exposed to life changing impairment should be more carefully scrutinized, especially by parents.

Thanks to the Daily Herald and other news media, increasingly large numbers of parents and student athletes are taking a hard look at the dangers and consequences of choosing to participate in collision sports. We affirm parents/student athletes who are taking actions in order to do something about the obvious risks.


Today, too many in authority challenged with the leadership responsibility to protect student athletes may be too comfortable ignoring realities and dangers inherent in participating in school sports. We call for change.

Twenty-nine years ago, Coach Kenneth Jennings was paralyzed playing football at Simeon High School in the Chicago Public School league. Other paralyzed football athletes from Chicago and suburban schools include Steve Herbst, Palatine 1980; Rob Komosa, Rolling Meadows 1999; Rocky Clark, Blue island 2000; and Travis Hearn, Rock Island 2008.

Since 1999, Jennings, Komosa, Clark and Hearn and Don Grossnickle began working hard to implement some positive changes that might improve things for today and tomorrow's student athletes. We write today, nudging parents/students to do a better job standing up for some needed changes we suggest that can improve local conditions for athletes.

Managing local conditions that seek to minimize risk is essential and now more than ever a collaboratively developed parent-stimulated action plan is needed.

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Much more is known about creating and sustaining conditions that enhance health, safety and welfare than are being willingly implemented. The Gridiron Alliance, successfully forged a coalition pushing for a law that requires all schools in Illinois to provide the most basic catastrophic injury insurance.

Fortunately, in 2013 Illinois legislators passed a law that requires medical insurance for student-athletes with $3 million of coverage or a five-year benefit period, whichever is reached first. This initiative was supported by the press and a coalition of parents.

No one is in a better position to demand appropriate measures for protecting student athletes than parents. We challenge parents and student athletes to work closely with school administration and coaches and the state athletic association to be local change agents in the sports community for safety-first priorities.

Recognizing the high risk of injury, the National Athletic Trainers' Association offers several mandates that can help ensure a safe and healthy environment.


This Gridiron Alliance list of mandated suggestions is largely adapted from National NATA recommendations:

1. Student athlete and parents must examine/fortify their health care insurance coverage in advance.

2. Student athletes and parents together must participate in mandatory sport safety-orientation sessions.

3. Parents must take steps to insure their athlete is physically and mentally "in shape."

4. Parents must make sure athletes are playing with state-of-the-art protective equipment.

5. Parents must send the message along with others: "Play head-smart, not head-strong," with rules and enforcement a priority.

6. Enforced "return to play" following concussion, injury policies must be in place.

7. Parents must monitor and direct the care of the team safety leadership at all times, especially protecting the athlete during periods of high heat.

8. Parents must insist that the local school establish a comprehensive emergency action plan attended by certified athletic training staff.

9. Parents, student athletes and counselors must closely examine future athletic scholarship realities and myths.

10. Parents and athletes must engage in ongoing dialogue to insist that all personnel review and implement the best possible preventive conditions for each sport.

Don Grossnickle and Kenneth Jennings are co-founders of the Gridiron Alliance for Sport Safety, a 501(c)(3) organization that promotes sport safety and conducts outreach for injured athletes and families.

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