CHARLOTTESVILLE — Even before the death of a University of Maryland offensive lineman following a workout this summer, the University of Virginia had put in place enhanced precautions to help protect its football players from the dangers of heatstroke.
U.Va. put itself at the forefront of player safety by adding real-time monitoring of players’ core body temperatures.
“It’s really helping us keep them safe,” said assistant athletic director for sports medicine Kelli Pugh, the football team’s primary trainer. “Before, we had to wait until they felt bad to tell us they felt bad.”
Prior to certain football practices and workouts, U.Va. freshmen and other high-risk players swallow a pill. The multivitamin-sized tablet contains a digestible sensor capable of using a Bluetooth connection to send real-time data to trainers’ computers.
Entering a player’s jersey number can give the trainer an immediate reading.
Athletes whose core body temperature begins to approach 104 degrees — which clinically defines heatstroke — can be monitored more closely and treated, often before they begin to experience major symptoms.
Pugh said she isn’t aware of any other college program using the technology, which costs $60,000 a year.
Virginia Tech declined to make athletic director Whit Babcock, trainer Mike Goforth or strength coach Ben Hilgart available to discuss the Hokies’ approach. Tech head coach Justin Fuente addressed the topic at his Tuesday news conference.
“Obviously that’s a tragic situation,” Fuente said, referring to the Maryland player’s death. “I know that I have never been anywhere where our training staff, our team doctors, our strength and conditioning staff, our nutrition staff, have been more on the same page in terms of caring for and monitoring our student-athletes. ... Certainly, there’s always room for us to continue to talk about those things and continue to try and improve but our player welfare is on the foremost of our minds.”
Virginia put the system in use earlier this month when the Cavaliers started fall camp. The technology itself is about 20 years old, Pugh said. In fact, she used it when she did her thesis for her master’s degree at the University of Florida 16 years ago.
Using it to combat the risk of heatstroke came to the forefront through the program’s communication with the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut.
Korey Stringer was a Pro Bowl offensive lineman in the NFL who died of heatstroke during training camp in 2001.
One of the doctors at Connecticut, Robert Huggins, is a U.Va. alumnus and had spoken at a conference at his alma mater about three years ago, Pugh said.
Research there has also shifted trainers’ focus from rushing athletes afflicted with heatstroke to a hospital to getting their temperature down as soon as possible. Pugh said cold-immersion treatment is now considered the most important thing in tending to an overheated athlete.
Starting three years ago, Virginia began keeping cold-immersion tubs on the sideline at football practices.
Maryland’s board of regents is investigating the culture created by, among others, head coach D.J. Durkin and strength coach Rick Court, both of whom the university put on administrative leave after a media report alleged abusive behavior. Court has resigned.
That report followed the death in June of a 19-year-old offensive lineman, Jordan McNair. McNair was hospitalized following a team workout May 29 and died June 13.
“I think every program in the country has to be examining, and rightly so, how the young people are treated, how are they groomed and developed, and what’s acceptable and what’s not,” Cavs coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “I think it’s a profound time and possibly a tipping point in college football and maybe all of college athletics.”
Virginia athletic director Carla Williams said that while the Maryland situation is both tragic and eye-opening, it serves as more of a reminder at U.Va. than it does a prompt for any major change.
Williams has a relatively simple mandate to combat the complex issue.
“She would like our programs to be run as if one of her kids were part of it,” Mendenhall said.
Williams, a mother of three and former college basketball player and assistant coach at the University of Georgia, said it is important for an athletic director to stress that concept, not because it’s revolutionary but because it helps establish a culture that keeps coaches focused on athletes’ well-being and allows for communication that also contributes to their safety.
Having athletic directors and other administrators visible at team workouts, creating an environment where athletes feel comfortable speaking out about perceived concerns, and — perhaps most importantly — empowering medical staff to have the final say in matters of athletes’ health, can all help limit the chance of something going tragically wrong.
“Based on what I’ve seen, I think that for our coaches, at least in my mind, the student-athletes are our priority. It’s important to me that we treat our student-athletes as if they were our own children,” Williams said. “Because it’s important that the student-athletes have every opportunity to have a good experience. Of course we want to compete for championships, but we want to make sure we strike the right balance and take care of the student-athletes first.”
Pugh said that during her career, she’s had strong support from coaches, and that’s only improved as the dangers of heatstroke became better known.
“They’re certainly more willing to listen when an athletic trainer expresses a concern,” Pugh said. “Nobody wants a student-athlete to be in danger.”
Williams said she doesn’t know if there’s a national trend away from the stereotypically hard-nosed coaching style often referred to, almost nostalgically, as “old school.” But she knows it’s not the coaching style she wants at U.Va.
“I don’t know what the trend is, but I do know what the expectation is here,” Williams said. “I have complete confidence in Bronco and the fact that he treats the players as if they were his sons. I do believe he’s looking out for the best interest of those players.”