Myles Garrett, the No. 1 draft choice of the Cleveland Browns, has lost half of his first season to an ankle injury. Deshaun Watson, outstanding rookie quarterback for the Houston Texans, is out for the season with a knee injury. Several Major League Baseball teams lost key players at crucial times in the past season. It ruined them. Tiger Woods is out for yet another golf season with a back injury.  (I have re-written this opening paragraph three times during the past two weeks just trying to stay up to date with the injury reports.)

I was surprised to learn that the Chinese Olympic Committee created a contract with their coaches that holds them responsible for injuries to their athletes. Amazing! Yes.  Preposterous? Maybe not. From a parent’s perspective, perhaps a coach’s contract should include a clause that relates to injuries.  At least that would show the importance of the issue.

I have a pet peeve, and if you don’t want to read my rant about it, you should just move on to another column and come back next week when I have calmed down a bit. The “peeve” is coaches who work with our young people who aren’t up on the latest methods to protect the health of their players.   

Injuries happen, and many are just the bad breaks expected from time to time in athletics.  However, some are preventable and occur just because the coach either doesn’t know better or is trying too hard to win. Whether it is ignorance or the pressure, some coaches get their priorities all mixed up. They think that their No. 1 responsibility is to win games. They think the GAME of football, or any other sport, is just an exercise in training, motivation, and strategy and that game day is “show time.” 

Well, they are partially right. However, the No. 1 responsibility of a coach is to protect his players, both physically and mentally, in every way he/she can. To do less is dereliction of duty and, in some cases, possibly criminal. 

The major “killer” of athletes is heat prostration, and the second highest on the list is head trauma. If you are a sports fan or a former player, you probably can cite one or more examples of a coach who put young people at risk by 1) not letting them drink water, 2) calling team practices in the heat of the day because they thought that would “get them in shape,” 3) putting players on the field when they are injured and 4) not observing proper protocol with a head injury. This is an abbreviated list. The real list is much, much longer.

I am an old baseball catcher. (I could have said “former” but the way my knees feel on some days the emphasis in that sentence is on the word “old.”)  I played in high school, American Legion, college and for a time in the Kansas League. I know at least 25 former catchers. Every one of them walks with a limp, most have had multiple surgeries on the knees, and several have had knee replacements. The baseball or softball catcher is the only position I know of in sports where the fundamental requirement of the position causes injury.  “Hunkering” down behind the hitter is just not a natural body position.

In recent years they have developed a new device that helps protect the knees. The new protector is being used from Little League to the majors. Brian McCann of the world champion Houston Astros wears the new protector every time he gets behind the plate.  Would you believe there are some high school coaches who will not let their catchers use that innovation that protects the knees? One even told me it was against his state’s high school activity organization rules. I checked, it isn’t. Whether it is mouthpieces to cover the teeth, support braces for the knees, or tape for the ankles, safety equipment is never against the rules.  However, coaches keeping players from using safety equipment certainly should be against the rules.  

To benefit our young people, coaches should keep themselves informed with the latest information about injuries.  Coaches should learn first aid, injury prevention methods, and to know when an injured athlete should be referred to a professional trained to handle the injury.  Professional teams have trainers to deal with injuries as do many colleges and even some high schools.  However, for the most part, coaches still have the major responsibility for the decisions that affect a player’s future and his/her life. That is especially true in our smaller high schools and in programs for younger children. Who trains those coaches to know and understand the problems that come with concussions and knee trauma? Youth football. Now there is a tragedy just waiting to happen.

Lest we heap too much “sole” responsibility on the heads of coaches, universities are responsible as well. The curriculum for coaches/physical education teachers gives them hours and hours of all the smallest details of training to coach their sport, from the most obvious techniques to the most obscure rules. Unfortunately, in most universities, the curriculum for training coaches/physical education teachers contains one three credit course in prevention and care of athletic injuries. That’s it. Thousands of hours of training in the technique of sport but only one course in the coach’s most important responsibility,  protecting the health of our young people. Both doctors and parents would tell you that is not nearly enough.

Coaches are under lots of pressure. Fans are guilty of putting undue pressure on coaches to win, sometimes at all cost.  We often have expectations that are totally unreasonable. However, on the crucial issue of injuries, parents and fans have little input and no control.  We should, at the very least, tell them what we think.  So, if you know an “offender,” you can clip this out and send it to him/her.  If they don’t listen, then your next option is up the chain of command, or maybe just to rant.

— Dr. Mark L. Hopkins is the author of this column. He is a former player, coach at both the high school and college levels, and past president of three colleges. He can be reached at presnet@presnet.net.