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In The Sunshine State, Lawmakers Hope To Protect Young Athletes From Dangers Of Sweltering Heat

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Riley McCullough
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Credit Riley McCullough / Unsplash
The Florida Channel

Florida lawmakers want to protect student athletes from sweltering temperatures, which can pose risk of heat strokes. The Senate Education committee heard from a parent whose son died as a result of overheating.

“Zach Martin was 16 years old when he died from exertional heat stroke, which he suffered at football practice during the summer time in 2017,” said Laurie Giordano, who started the Zach Martin Memorial Foundation to push for change after her son’s death.

Martin was an offensive lineman in football, and goalie for his lacrosse team. He had a temperature of 107 degrees when he was taken to the hospital. Giordano says heat-related deaths can be preventable.

“We’ve donated 35 tubs for cold water immersion to high schools in Florida,” Giordano told legislators.

A bill moving through the Senate would require schools participating under the Florida High School Athletics Association to have cooling zones with cold water immersion tubs or other cooling materials, whether it’s at a game, practice or scrimmage.

Last year Florida saw one of the hottest summers on record. To protect athletes in Florida’s K-12 public schools, legislators want more protections in place.

“Florida leads the nation now in high school student athlete deaths. We just had another death last year,” said Republican Senator Keith Perry. He’s sponsoring the measure in his chamber.

The bill would require the FHSAA to also provide training in monitoring heat stress in athletes. It mandates schools have an automated external defibrillator present, and have coaches and volunteers be trained on how to use it.

“What SB 1696 does is, it adds requirements to protect students participating in athletics and extracurricular activities during hot weather to avoid preventable injury or death,” Perry explained.

A 2018 report from National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research says since 1995, 64 football players have died nationally from a heat stroke, 47 at the high school level. A report from the state Office of Policy Analysis says evidence shows a 100 percent survival rate when an athlete is cooled down within the first 10 minutes of collapsing from heat exhaustion.

Robert Sefcik is a member of the FHSAA’s sports medicine advisory committee.

“There are deadly risks in sports. Sudden cardiac arrest, heat stroke, and head injuries are the top three deadliest risks,” Sefcik said.

Sefcik spoke to the importance of having at the ready a way to cool an overheating athlete down:

“We are asking for our schools to have cold tubs or a device that could be available for emergent treatment of somebody suffering from heat stress. We’ve got agencies in place that are at the ready to support our schools and help with this effort.”

Democratic senator Janet Cruz of Hillsborough County says schools need to be better prepared in a heating world.

“Florida is very hot, and as our climate changes, I wonder how these athletes are going to be able to continue to be on a field in the scorching heat,” Cruz said.

But, Cruz has questions about where the money for schools to implement those safety measures would come from.

“I worry a little bit because I saw what was defined as an indeterminate fiscal, and wasn’t sure where the money was going to come from – whether it would be an unfunded mandate on the schools or not,” Cruz told her colleagues.

Perry says the costs of having some of these cooling measures on-site will be reasonable.

“I think you’ve already seen a movement where we’ve gotten where you can get a kiddy tub, or even a tub and ice – so we’ve brought the cost potentially way down, to a nominal level,” the Gainesville Republican said.

Perry’s bill passed the Senate Education Committee unanimously. The House has a companion committee bill that is waiting for its first hearing.

Copyright 2020 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.