A handful of youth sports leagues in Tennessee are raising their safety procedures to achieve a new state certification. The endorsement is akin to the state's rating system for pre-schools. And health officials hope that it becomes something embraced statewide. The NFL's top doctor has even pledged to help spread the program across the country.
Before taking the field for a soccer match, student referee Abby Bode of the Gallatin Soccer Club gathers the coaches and players for a safety check.
"Are ya'll's socks over ya'll's shin guards?" she asks two teams of 5-year-olds, instructing them to tap their shins to prove they're protected. "And are you all wearing shin guards?"
This scene plays out on just about any kid's soccer field. But risk director Shane Davis says the difference now is the pre-game policy has been put down on paper. The Gallatin Soccer Club is one of the first leagues to achieve Tennessee's Safe Stars gold designation.
"So the things that we were already doing that were club-known, that everybody just knew you had to do it, it had to be in writing," he says.
All of it demands much more from volunteer coaches — background checks, a plan for a sudden allergic reaction and coaches getting certified in CPR. The standards even address mental wellness of children, promoting a "positive culture." See the full list here.
"All of our kids play, and we love our kids. And all of us coach," Davis says. "Nobody wants to see anybody's kid hurt."
But meeting all the standards did hurt the nonprofit's bottom line. The most expensive component is buying a defibrillator. Davis says that was $1,200.
Still, health officials say an AED machine needs to become standard, which is why keeping one on site is mandatory to achieve the lowest level designation of bronze.
Big THANK YOU to our many Safe Stars Initiative partners, including @VUMChealth, @PredsNHL and more! Check out the photo album and where to learn more about this program, the first of its kind: https://t.co/6to1F8JfE9 pic.twitter.com/jxfgC8pljt
— TN Dept. of Health (@TNDeptofHealth) May 2, 2018
Referee Travis Childers from Murfreesboro spoke at the Safe Stars launch event on Wednesday and recalled stepping in to save a boy's life who collapsed during a basketball game. The former EMT used the AED machine stored in the gymnasium.
"His coach had this deer-in-the-headlight look," he recalled. "And that's something that needs to change."
Professional sports have also increased their emphasis on player safety — especially related to concussions. So they're embracing this new certification program, which mandates training for coaches to recognize and manage head injuries.
Leaders of the Tennessee Department of Health contend that Safe Stars is the first government-endorsed safety rating system for youth sports leagues. They, along with creator Alex Diamond of Vanderbilt, have been coordinating with pro sports leagues to expand the program nationwide.
"Let's get to where parents demand this for their kids, for their schools and for their youth leagues," said Vanderbilt neurosurgeon Allen Sills, who is also the chief medical officer for the NFL. "I'll certainly do all I can with my role in the NFL to do that."
The Tennessee chapter of the NFL players' union made a commitment to help spread the standards around the state.
"We want to save our sport," chapter president Ross Browner said. "We love our sport, and we really want to demand that everything — all the standards — be upheld, even in youth football."