Behind the Blue Disk

Publish date: Apr 11, 2011

Football and Heat Illness

Why does the NCAA permit summer conditioning in Division I football? With 96 percent of all football heat illnesses occurring in August, student-athletes are permitted to work with strength and conditioning coaches to prepare them for preseason practice.

What is heat illness? Heat stress leading to heat illness is a concern for anyone exercising in hot and/or humid environments. Although deaths from heat illness are rare, exertional heat stroke is a medical emergency characterized by very high body temperatures, bizarre behaviors, confusion or collapse. Treatment includes early recognition, rapid cooling and appropriate care by a doctor.

Does the NCAA have mandatory safety precautions for summer conditioning and preseason football workouts? Yes, but they differ based on whether it is voluntary summer workouts or actual preseason practices. General safety precautions include phasing in practices, close supervision, adequate recovery time and frequent hydration. Recognizing the warning signs and taking immediate action are the keys to preventing heat illness.

Is every student-athlete required to have a medical exam every year they compete? Only new student-athletes are required to have a full medical exam. Returning players are required to complete an updated medical history that may lead to further evaluation.

What can cause a sudden collapse during conditioning? Heat stress, sickle cell trait, cardiac conditions and asthma combined with an intense workout are the most common causes.

What is the NCAA’s position on sickle cell trait? The NCAA recommends schools confirm sickle cell trait (SCT) status in all student-athletes through the medical examination process prior to allowing them to practice and compete. Division I student-athletes must confirm their SCT status through test results or sign a written release saying they choose not to be tested.

Are certain student-athletes more susceptible to heat illness? Generally, at-risk individuals include those who are unfit, overweight and not acclimated to physical exertion. Some additional factors include previous heat illness, fever, gastrointestinal illness and stimulant use via medications or supplements.

What can be done to prevent heat illness? Taking time to adjust to a new climate or to new conditions is the first step. Schools should provide ample hydration, conduct progressive conditioning, modify practices and provide immediate medical care to student-athletes showing signs of heat illness. Student-athletes should submit medical histories and physical evaluations noting any pre-existing conditions, train at their own pace and understand their possible susceptibility to heat illness.