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IHSA’s Marty Hickman says lawsuit may force some schools to eliminate football

Illinois High School Association Executive Director Marty Hickman summed up the organization’s concern over a recently filed class action lawsuit in a press conference at Lincoln-Way West in New Lenox on Friday.

“[If the lawsuit is successful] the have’s will have [football] and the have nots won’t,” said Hickman. “That would be an injustice, that would be a shame.”

The lawsuit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court on Saturday on behalf of former Notre Dame College Prep player Daniel Bukal, claims the IHSA has failed to do enough to protect athletes from the potential damage of concussions.

Hickman, Mount Carmel football coach Frank Lenti, Wilmington coach Jeff Reents and LaSalle-Peru Athletic Director D’Wayne Bates all appeared on behalf of the IHSA on Friday.

Lenti and Bates said that both of their schools follow most of the guidelines the lawsuit wants the IHSA to force schools to enact. According to Hickman, one of the most impractical changes the lawsuit suggests is that every school have a physician in attendance at all games and practices.

“If that happens you are going to have some very poor, depressed areas that aren’t going to have football,” said Hickman.

“We have had a certified athletic trainer on staff as long as I’ve been at Mount Carmel,” said Lenti. “Schools have to come up with the money on their own to do those type of things. We go out and try to raise money so that we can have that extra trainer on staff the entire school year.”

Hickman’s opening statement stressed the difference between high school, college and NFL football.

“Mount Carmel isn’t the Dallas Cowboys,” said Hickman. “In spite of what Mount Carmel fans might think. Wilmington isn’t the Alabama Crimson Tide.

In the lawsuit, Bukal claims he sustainted multiple concussions in games and practices during his high school career and that he still suffers several medical conditions relating to the concussions.

Joe Siprut, Bukal’s attorney, says the IHSA did not have concussion protocols in place, putting Bukal and other high school players at risk. Those protocols remain deficient, the lawsuit alleges. It calls on the IHSA to tighten its rules regarding head injuries at the 800 high schools it oversees. It doesn’t seek specific monetary damages.

“In Illinois high school football, responsibility — and, ultimately, fault — for the historically poor management of concussions begins with the IHSA,” the lawsuit states. It calls high school concussions “an epidemic” and says the “most important battle being waged on high school football fields … is the battle for the health and lives of” young players.

Siprut filed a similar lawsuit against the NCAA in 2011. The college sports governing body agreed this year to settle the NCAA lawsuit, including by committing $70 million for a medical monitoring program to test athletes for brain trauma. The deal is awaiting a judge’s approval.

The IHSA lawsuit seeks similar medical monitoring of Illinois high school football players, though it doesn’t spell out how such a program would operate. It contends new regulations should include mandatory baseline testing of all players before each season to help determine the severity of any concussion during the season.

Bates said that LaSalle-Peru already has every football player participate in the baseline testing, at significant cost.

“My concern is that we don’t legislate football out of existance if at all possible,” said Lenti. “That we don’t over or under react.”

Contributing: Associated Press