Taking a Healthy Approach to Sports

November 8, 2013

By Rob Kaminski
MHSAA benchmarks editor

During election years, it’s a familiar rallying cry: “Four more years! Four more years!”

It’s become commonplace following the third quarter of football games around the country for members of the leading team to march down the gridiron with four fingers raised on one outstretched hand as teams switch ends of the field to signify, “Fourth quarter is ours; finish the job.”

The number four also is significant in education with school terms identified as freshman, sophomore, junior and senior years.  

To that end, the MHSAA is imploring everyone involved in educational athletics to go back to school in 2013-14 with a four-year mission in mind: “Four Thrusts for Four Years.”

The goal is to attain and maintain advanced degrees in sports safety, positioning Michigan schools in the center of best practices for ensuring the health of our product and students, today and beyond.

“Just a brief look around all levels of today’s athletic landscape reveals heightened awareness of health and safety issues,” said MHSAA Executive Director Jack Roberts. “Interscholastic sports as a whole – and particularly school sports in Michigan – has long led the charge to employ the safest contest rules and provide the healthiest environments for our games and participants.

“But, to put it in athletic terms, we can’t sit on the lead,” Roberts added. “We can, and must, improve our games in order to guarantee their existence for future generations. That is our goal, our thrust in the coming years.”

Following are the focal points for this four-year plan:

  • Implement heat and humidity management policies at all schools for all sports.
  • Require more initial and ongoing sports safety training for more coaches.
  • Revise practice policies generally, but especially for early in the fall season.
  • Modify game rules to reduce the frequency of the most dangerous play situations, and to reduce head trauma.

The directive actually kicked off last March, when the Representative Council approved a heat management policy for MHSAA tournaments and a detailed model policy for schools. While not setting requirements for member schools during the regular season, it suggests actions based on heat index – the degree of felt discomfort derived by combining temperature and humidity measurements – that are designed to minimize the risk of heat-related illness during interscholastic participation. 

The policy is mandatory for all MHSAA tournaments beginning this school year, and the MHSAA plans to monitor schools’ adoption of the plan throughout the year to determine best policies moving forward.

Laminated cards containing the policy and heat index chart were printed and mailed to schools in June and continue to be disseminated at statewide meetings this fall. Two publications, Heat Ways and Safety Blitz, were published, mailed and posted to MHSAA.com, heightening awareness of healthy practice regimens, and schools have been offered discounted psychrometer prices through the MHSAA to assist in their efforts to properly monitor weather conditions. 

“This action was significant; but it’s just the next step in a continuous series of actions being taken to make school sports as healthy as possible for students,” said Roberts.

The MHSAA’s proactive movements toward a safer tomorrow are taking place concurrently, rather than sequentially. While the heat and humidity plan is the most developed of the four “thrusts,” other initiatives are underway. Today’s climate prompts such action.

From the NCAA’s new “targeting fouls” to the NFL’s “crown” rule, and of course Major League Baseball’s Biogenesis/PED debacle, the headlines off the field in August centered on protecting the games rather than simply playing them.  Like it or not, it’s the type of news  fans need to get used to as their favorite sports audible to option plays in order to steer clear of the endangered species list.

The situation can’t be overstated. Athletics at all levels has been approaching a crossroads for years, and the time to heed the signals has come.

“Let’s make one thing abundantly clear: The people in charge of football at all levels are wise to craft rules that make the game safer, even if those rules will be controversial,” wrote Andy Staples for SI.com College Football on July 23.

The story continued: “As more information arrives about the long-term dangers of the headshots football players absorb at the high school, college and pro levels, something has to change. The next few years will be messy. The game needs saving, because if it continues as it has, it will get decimated by lawsuits and by parents of young children who decide the potential adverse effects aren't worth the risk.”

When kids stop playing, numbers at the high school level and beyond are bound to diminish as well. To trumpet the vast benefits of interscholastic football while easing parents’ minds on safety concerns, the MHSAA formed a Football Task Force in the spring of 2013. The task force is the first of several to be convened during the next four school years, and the objectives of each are to promote the sports involved as safe, low-risk, competitive athletics through the  development of  better practice policies and modification of playing rules. 

“These task forces will be central to the overarching mission of preserving sports for years to come,” said Roberts. “We believe the MHSAA Football Task Force has set a foundation on which to build. Our discussions involving revised practice policies have reached the draft stage, and we intend to have formal proposals ready to present to the Representative Council in March 2014.”

The work of the 13-member task force – made up of football coaches and school administrators from around the state – will be reviewed by the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association, the MHSAA Football Committee and at the MHSAA League Leadership meeting for fine-tuning prior to reaching the Council.

“It is important that we provide opportunities for children to participate in interscholastic athletics and crucial that we do all we can to ensure they will be safe when they do,” said Football Task Force member Tammy Jackson, principal at East Jordan High School, who has a sports medicine background. “The MHSAA has taken an active role in promoting safety by convening the Task Force to examine current rules and consider modifications to further protect children.”

With so much publicity concerning football safety, the football group was a natural to become the first of several task forces to be assembled.

“We must educate the public on the benefits of all school sports,” said task force member Bill Chilman, superintendent of Beal City Schools. “In the case of football, it must be impressed upon people that it is statistically a very safe game when taught and played properly. The Football Task Force being proactive rather than reactive to this safety movement is key to promoting the lifelong values of football and all school sports.”

And within that public is a group which has the most vested concerns: the parents.

“There is more information available to the general public regarding sport and sport injuries, and unfortunately parents and kids all too often hear about the negative side of sport,” suggests Mike Bakker, athletic director at Fenton High School, and another member of the MHSAA Football Task Force. “It is imperative for the integrity of the sport of football to have coaches and administrators provide information about the safety of the game and the steps we take to keep kids safe. We must educate parents about the proper way to play the game and the signs to look for if problems arise.”

Without getting into the minutia of the new NCAA and NFL playing rules regarding use of the helmet, suffice it to say this will be an interesting fall during which to monitor penalties and their effects on injury numbers, particularly when it comes to concussions.

The rules changes have been reported and debated at the national level ad nauseam, and the mood seems to inexplicably tilt toward skepticism and criticism from the very group that would stage a revolt of epic proportions if football ever became extinct: the fans.

Case in point: six targeting fouls were called in 75 games during the opening weekend of college football over Labor Day Weekend (one ejection was overturned by replay), and the outcry began. Analysts and fans are afforded frame-by-frame replays which onfield officials do not have the luxury of seeing before throwing the flag.

Like it or not, the rules are in place. And, they have been implemented to protect the future of the game. The impetus now falls to the caretakers of the game – the officials – who no doubt will bear the brunt of disapproving masses in the stadiums. Yet, football is their livelihood too; both players and officials are expected to make adjustments. 

At Officiate Michigan Day and the ensuing National Association of Sports Officials Summit this past July in Grand Rapids, the theme was clear: “The game has changed, and the officiating has to change with it.”

From NFL Referee Jeff Triplette to SEC Coordinator of Officials Scott Shaw to Big Ten Referee Alex Kemp and Fox Sports NFL Rules Analyst Mike Pereira – people who have been around the block – the message delivered was that the changes are necessary for the health and growth of football.

“We’re talking about taking out a specific type of play that, quite honestly, you didn’t see that much of before about 10 years ago,” Triplette said during a player safety panel at the NASO Summit. “They still played defense, there were still great hits. But somehow, these violent types of tackles began to get notoriety – whether it was all the ESPN highlights, YouTube, and maybe a combination of all of that stuff – and players started to celebrate those hits, and that became the goal.”

Not only can the game become safer; it might even become better by going retro. In recent comments on The Sports XChange, NFL analyst and former coach John Madden said, “You are always concerned how any change will impact the game. In this case, players are not going for the head shot, that big hit. They are keeping their heads up.  Better tackling has become the unintended consequence. That's a good thing. Good for football. Good for kids watching. Players are tackling the way they are supposed to, with their shoulders and wrapping up. The big hit, the big replay had become so popular that tackling suffered.”

In high school, the most notable rule change involving helmets involves penalties for players who lose their helmets during a play. However, illegal helmet contact continues to be a point of emphasis and carries a minimum of a 15-yeard penalty as it has for many years. In the NCAA the mantra on helmet-to-helmet blows is, “When in doubt throw them out,” as the foul now carries with it a player ejection.

That is not the high school rule—yet—but officials at all levels need to be on the lookout. Kemp was quick to warn a roomful of prep football officials during Officiate Michigan Day, “We’ve been told to err on the side of safety, and these plays will result in ejection,” while also adding that such plays will be reviewed by replay officials. “That portion of the rule isn’t there in high school yet, but be ready for it; it’s coming, so when it happens in your games take notice and determine the severity.”

Which brings us to contest rules for safer play. During the next few years, various sport groups will be assembled to follow the MHSAA football task force’s lead in scrutinizing rules and developing proposals for revisions or additions to be submitted to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Initial football discussions receiving some traction involve changing the enforcement spot on post-interception penalties and limiting the number of yards teams can run up on free kicks. Before any submissions are made to the NFHS Football Committee, the task force will conduct research and present findings to Michigan committees.

“We can make changes ourselves – through MHSAA sport committees – for the subvarsity level, but our committees can only make recommendations to national rules committees for varsity level play,” explained Roberts. “Over the next four years, we will be asking our sport committees to give more time to the most dangerous plays in their sport – identifying what they are and proposing how to reduce that danger.”

While the football task force here at home is finalizing practice policy proposals targeted for implementation in the fall of 2014, Texas and Illinois are two states which launched restrictions with the opening of football this season.  Spokespersons from both states indicate that coaches and school administrators have been pleased with the new formats.

Coaches no doubt will need to adjust practice itineraries and budget time wisely.  Administrators need to remind staffs that the new era is dawning in the name of player safety, which is paramount to all parties.

“In game situations, coaches want our officials to throw the flag on late hits, low hits and other illegal contact,” Roberts said. “These are incidents that they have no control over. They do have control over practice time and teaching fundamentals; so let’s encourage safety measures that we can control, and employ those tactics to help the game prosper.”

Education will key the efforts to align coaches of all sports – and all levels – in the movement toward a healthy future.  School will be in session during the next four years as the MHSAA implements effective and practical means for raising coaches’ preparedness. Three avenues are on the map:

First, the Representative Council mandated that beginning with the 2014-15 school year, all assistant and subvarsity coaches at the high school level must complete the same MHSAA rules meetings currently only required of varsity head coaches or, alternatively, one of the free online sports safety courses posted on or linked from the MHSAA Website that is designated as fulfilling this requirement.

Second, it is proposed that by 2015-16, MHSAA member high schools will be required to certify that all of their varsity head coaches have a valid CPR certification.

Third, it is proposed that by 2016-17, any person who is hired for the first time to be the varsity head coach of a high school team, to begin after July 31, 2016, must have completed either Level 1 or Level 2 of the MHSAA Coaches Advancement Program. The MHSAA is preparing to subsidize some of the course cost for every coach who completes Level 1 or 2.

Together, these changes will move Michigan from one of the states of fewest coaching requirements to a position consistent with the “best practices” for minimizing risk in school sports and providing students a healthy experience.

At stake in these four thrusts – whether for an administrator, coach, official, student-athlete, parent or fan – are the environments that offer so many lessons and the games for which we root.

Longtime Officials, Statistician Honored for Decades as 'Behind-the-Scenes' Heroes

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

February 23, 2024

BROWN CITY – Jerry Sauder thought he was going to be a presenter Thursday night, as his alma mater Brown City was honoring officials Curt Lowe and Joel Venia and school statistician Todd Vandewarker for their decades of service.

Bay & ThumbBut that was simply a ruse by fellow official Tom Mailloux and Brown City athletic director Tony Burton to get Sauder there to join the ceremony and receive his own award for 50 years as an official.

With Sauder on the court, 175 total years of involvement with athletics were honored between the JV and varsity Unionville-Sebewaing vs. Brown City girls basketball games. Sauder spent 50 years as an official, Lowe and Venia 45, and Vandewarker has spent 35 years as a statistician, all across multiple sports.

“Tonight, we gather to pay tribute to those whose steadfast dedication has woven the fabric of excellence into the tapestry of Michigan high school athletics,” Brown City principal Brad Hale said to kick off the ceremony. “It is with profound gratitude that we extend our heartfelt appreciation to the unsung heroes behind the scenes – the pillars whose tireless efforts ensure that each game unfolds seamlessly, each moment etched with the spirit of sportsmanship and fair play. … Tonight, we shine a spotlight on a few whose commitment spans decades, illuminating the path for generations of athletes to follow.”

Sauder’s 50 years as an official included 25 as a Division I college basketball referee. He is currently working in an administrative role with Elite Officiating, overseeing officials in the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association, Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference. He’s officiated NCAA Tournament games and contests around the world after getting noticed at a camp at Western Michigan University.

“I’ve always said I’m the luckiest guy to put on a shirt,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to be selected to be given the opportunity. There’s a lot of guys that could have, but weren’t set up to do it at that time.”

During his time as a high school official, Sauder reffed MHSAA Finals for basketball and football. He also spent time officiating baseball and softball games. 

He began officiating when his best friend Jim Seidell, a longtime coach and administrator in Brown City, convinced him to start. Sauder knows his path isn’t a common one, and that it’s not easy to convince people to get into officiating. But with perseverance, opportunities are available.

Vanderwarker receives his award for 35 years as a school statistician. “There’s a dire need right now,” Sauder said. “We’ve got to do something because if we don’t, high school sports as we know it is going to suffer. … I was fortunate to have good people around me that mentored me. Kids start, they last a couple years and they walk away from it. They don’t pay enough money to get yelled at like people go at you now. I don’t blame the young people.”

Lowe, who officiated Thursday night’s JV game before the ceremony, got his start thanks to Sauder and Seidell. Also a Brown City graduate, Lowe’s 45 years of officiating include multiple assignments at MHSAA Football and Basketball Finals. He’s also been on the court for women’s college basketball games.

“Officiating is like family,” Lowe said. “I have met so many people – wonderful people. And, over 45 years, it’s been a ton.”

While he’s worked plenty of games in the Thumb, much of Lowe’s time as an official was spent in the Saginaw and Flint area, where he was able to officiate games featuring some of the state’s greatest athletes, including Mateen Cleaves, Draymond Green, Mark Ingram and the late Charles Rogers. 

“Those were the best games, and Jerry got me in there,” Lowe said. “That was the best ball ever. It was just amazing to watch.”

Lowe’s crew Thursday night included a pair of younger officials who later officiated the varsity game with Mailloux. Lowe thinks it’s a great opportunity for athletes who want to stay connected to sports.

Venia’s start in officiating was more by happenstance. He was working the scoreboard for rec basketball games in his hometown of Marysville, and one day needed to fill in as an official. After reffing the game, he made $10 as opposed to the $5 he got for running the scoreboard, and made the move. 

He’s still doing football games but is no longer on the basketball court or softball or baseball diamonds. 

“It’s probably the contacts you make in the little towns,” Venia said about what has kept him in the officiating business. “I go down to the Macomb area and do that. In football, we always take five games up in the Thumb. I know so many people up here. With the kids, it keeps you younger, keeps you moving.”

Like Sauder and Lowe, Venia has officiated multiple MHSAA Football and Basketball Finals.

Lowe refs the junior varsity game before the recognition ceremony. He played football, basketball and baseball in high school, and thinks that experience can be “tremendous” for future officials. But he was quick to point out that those who don’t have that experience can also thrive.

“I’ve worked with a couple guys that never played,” Venia said. “(Mailloux) never played football, but he’s a good football official. I mentored a guy that never played basketball, Jordan Stevens, who is the softball coach at South Dakota State. He never played basketball, never played football, but he was a very good official. I think it gives you an advantage, but by no means is it a barrier if you haven’t played.”

The person with the best seat in the house as Sauder, Lowe and Venia have run up and down the court or football field in Brown City has been Vandewarker, who was celebrated for his decades of service as a statistician.

When asked how he got started, he pointed at Burton.

“That guy suckered me into it,” Vandewarker said with a laugh.

Vandewarker was himself a Brown City athlete, competing in football, basketball and track. Over his more than three decades keeping stats, he’s seen several great Green Devils and opposing athletes – so many that he couldn’t narrow them down.

“A couple thousand (games),” he said. “I’ve seen some stuff, I’ve seen some good stuff. A lot of good players. Too many memorable ones to mention, I guess. I’ve seen the best of the coaches and heard everything they have to say. Best of the refs – I was in high school and Jerry Sauder was reffing my games.”

At that point, Vandewarker had to step away and start the pregame clock for varsity warm-ups. But when he came back, he had an idea of how long he may remain at the center of Brown City athletics.

“I always said as long as Tony and Cindy (Burton, Brown City’s assistant AD) were around,” he said. “But I don’t know. I’ll probably go for another 10-15, put a good 50 in. I think I got that in me, still.”

Paul CostanzoPaul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS (Top) From left: MHSAA-registered officials Curt Lowe, Joel Venia and Jerry Sauder and Brown City statistician Todd Vandewarker stand together as they are celebrated Thursday at Brown City. (Middle) Vanderwarker receives his award for 35 years as a school statistician. (Below) Lowe refs the junior varsity game before the recognition ceremony. (Photos by Paul Costanzo.)