Football Canada’s Safe Contact program in full swing, how does it measure up?

As more thorough and detailed science continues to emerge on the link between participation in collision sports and the risk of brain injury, youth football organizations across North America have been walking a delicate line in attempts to make the game safer while not damaging the integrity of the sport.

There are several ongoing campaigns stretching across United States pushing to minimize contact in youth football under a certain age, most notably in New York State, where it’s been proposed to ban tackling for children under the age of 14.

No measures have been taken to outright eliminate tackling in Canada, but its governing body has rolled out its own risk-minimization initiative in recent months. The Safe Contact program was enacted by Football Canada last August which, among others, lists the following guidelines effective starting in 2017:

  • Regular season games must be scheduled a minimum of four days apart (2 days for NSO and PSO tournaments)
  • Make up games must be scheduled no less than two days before and after previous and following games.
  • All teams must, before starting any other skill development, have a week dedicated to “Safe Contact.

Aaron Geisler is Football Canada’s manager of program development and a main developer of the Safe Contact program. Overseeing the implementation and enforcement of the program’s guidelines from day one, Geisler says that the resistance Football Canada has faced from coaches and organizations while rolling out the program has been minimal.

“People were incredibly responsive because it’s not only beneficial from a safety side but also useful from a coaching perspective. We were expecting it to be a little tougher than it was for us to roll out, but people jumped on it and were saying they were all in,” said Geisler in an interview with canadafootballchat.com.

Of course, it’s impossible to avoid the inevitable hurdles faced when rolling out a program of this size and depth across a country so vast. Logistics and a lack of staff were among the biggest obstacles Football Canada faced during the program’s introduction, while making sure each of the over 5,000 coaches across the country stay up to date and certified is an equally daunting task moving forward.

“A lot of it was infrastructure, ensuring that we had enough facilitators to meet the demand. Once we have all the coaches trained, it’s ensuring that we’re tracking and making sure that all coaches that are supposed to be trained, are trained. Making sure every single coaching staff is trained is definitely one of the biggest challenges,” Geisler said.

Some guidelines, specifically surrounding Safe Contact coaching certification, were introduced in two phases with two goal-targets in mind.  First target was March of 2016, where Football Canada deemed that 50% of coaches plus all head coaches had to be certified in teaching skills like safe tackling and concussion awareness protocols. The second target is the beginning of the 2017 seasons, when all coaches across the country have to be Safe Contact certified.

A key player-focused guideline mandates a minimum of two calendar days between tournament games, including all NSO and PSO regulated events. For regular season, the recommendation is actually six days between, with four days being the mandated minimum. This one is a bit of a head-scratcher, as the potential damage caused to a player’s brain from compounding collisions does not vary whether the athlete is competing in season or at a tournament game.

If the goal is player safety, you would think its guidelines of four days between games should be applied across the board, including tournaments. According to Geisler, the challenges of scheduling and logistics for tournaments that host multiple games which have to be squeezed into only a few days makes it nearly impossible to implement a four-day rule for tournaments.

He explained further that two days is the bare-minimum, and they decided to take it a step farther for regular season games by extending the recommended and mandatory guidelines to six and four days, respectively.

Though the manager of program development is at the forefront of implementation of the Safe Contact program, the onus will mainly lay on each provincial governing body to enforce the regulations set by Football Canada and report and punish offenders based on their own set of rules, standards and practices.

“Generally what happens is we’re the administrators, so it’s no different if they’re asking for a background check. They [each provincial organization] have their own sanctions and their own types of quality control.” said Geisler.

“Each instance is a league issue, and it’s up to them to reprimand based on how they usually handle those types of things. If we do our due diligence and are aware of a violation, then it becomes an assurance issue—but it’s generally up to the leagues to reprimand any violations.”

The program is young and most guidelines and rules are set to be enforced upon the start of the 2017 season. So far though, Geisler says, no one has tried to push the envelope to far—as far as he knows.

“[No violations yet] that I’m aware of. So far, I have not heard anything, not even anecdotal, about anyone trying to screw the system or anything like that.”

Further country-wide safety measures, including setting a specific number of weeks allowed each year for tackle football at each age category and a progression to 12-a-side football, will be implemented in full by 2022.

 

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