When I first read this year’s high school football schedules, I was certain it was a misprint.
After playing seven orderly weeks of contests on Friday nights, the schedule suddenly shifted into a dizzying pattern of games stacked upon games. The final regular-season contest was scheduled for a Wednesday, and a number of teams then faced a first-round playoff game the following Tuesday.
Then teams fortunate enough to win that opening game in a section tournament were “rewarded” with a second-round contest just four days later on Saturday.
That was no misprint: A number of football teams around the state played four games in 16 days.
“It’s an antiquated system that needs to go away,” Cambridge-Isanti coach Shane Weibel said. “I’m 100 percent against this.”
As a transplanted Ohioan covering high school football in Minnesota for the first time, I agree with Weibel. What makes it worse is that it is a system designed in part for convenience: The Wednesday contest creates a long weekend, thanks to the off days provided by the Minnesota Educator Academy, or MEA, conference. Instead of playing on Friday, games get pushed two days earlier so fans can take advantage of one of the state’s busiest travel periods of the year.
Then, as the playoff schedule opens, the desire to involve every high school football team in the state creates multiple games compressed into a small window of opportunity as the sport fights poor weather and the need to end the season in a timely fashion.
But lost in this cost-benefit analysis is a focus on player safety. The physical nature of football, which is predicated on large bodies pounding against one another repeatedly over the course of 48 minutes, results in wear and tear on joints, ligaments and muscles, not to mention an increased danger of concussions.
“We talk about player safety, and all the concussion issues, but then we play all these games? That doesn’t seem like it’s about player safety to me,” Weibel said.
It’s not. Research by the National Athletic Trainers Association indicates that players with one or more previous injuries have a two to three times greater risk of injury compared to injury-free athletes.
“If you’re hurt, there’s no time to get healthy,” Weibel said of the compressed schedule. “As a coach, you’re almost thinking that you should hold kids out so they’re ready to go for the next game – but you don’t want to deny kids a chance to play a game.”
Luckily, local football coaches understand the need to limit the wear and tear on teenagers.
“From a physical standpoint, with the games stacking up, we realize it can wear on them – both mentally and physically,” said Braham coach Shawn Kuhnke, whose team was one of those that played four games in 16 days. “We adjust our practices, limiting contact throughout the week. We focused more on having guys in the right spots to block the right guy on offense or getting in the right gaps on defense.”
There are potential solutions to this scheduling problem, of course. One is to limit the playoff field by making teams earn their berths, which is a common practice around the country. It’s not a perfect solution, because some favor a system that includes every team, and setting a qualifying standard that satisfies everyone – a two-pronged puzzle that includes determining who’s in and who’s out as well as how participants are seeded – would be no easy task.
Using the QRF system to seed teams is not perfect, as Rush City learned this season. The Tigers posted a 6-2 record, yet were the sixth seed in Section 4AA, behind three state-ranked teams, Maple Lake at 7-3, and a 4-4 St. Paul Humboldt squad. If we used the computers to cut the number of qualifiers in half, Rush City would have been on the outside of the playoffs looking in.
“To have a 6-2 team not make the playoffs? I would have a huge problem with that,” Rush City coach Joe Lattimore said.
Another possible solution is to start the season earlier in August or extend the season later into October. Each admittedly would present challenges with weather extremes on each end, especially if the playoff puzzle is not solved.
But if we care about the health of high school football players, those problems should be considered simply hurdles to overcome, not barriers to change. C-I’s Weibel favors modifications to the late-season schedule crunch, while area coaches such as Lattimore, Kuhnke and North Branch’s Justin Voss remain open to exploring the possibilities.
“I’d have to learn more about what goes into making these [scheduling] decisions, but I’m open to hearing any opinion about what’s best for our student-athletes,” Voss said.
Kuhnke cautioned that change is not imminent.
“I understand the outside perspective, and how it doesn’t make sense,” he said. “But I don’t see it changing as we move forward. If the conversations do start, it takes a while for those changes to take place.”
Fair enough. But that only means the time to start those conversations is now. If we say we care about the health of our football players, it’s time to replace our words with actions and end this potentially dangerous compression of the late-season football schedule.