SOUTH JORDAN — It's a bitterly cold January morning as Coach Dave Peck climbs on a platform in front of the 70 or so football players to discuss a season that doesn't officially start for another eight months.
"This next year is going to be whatever you want it to be," said Peck, Bingham High's football coach. "We have enough talent that we could be something special. But that's up to you."
The students listening to Peck's advice on why working hard now will bring them success in the fall are all enrolled in a powerlifting class. The coach's hope is that the boys will not only get stronger but they'll develop fitness habits that will last throughout their lives.
At the same time, a few miles away at Jordan High, football players are working on their running technique and sprint drills under the supervision of head football coach Eric Kjar. The class is strength and conditioning, and like the class at Bingham, is made up of football players.
Football coaches are not allowed to coach their players right now, but classes like these, which can be found at almost any high school in the state for nearly every sport, are not considered a violation of what is referred to as the "dead time rule."
Every sport sanctioned by the Utah High School Activities Association has 12 to 15 weeks of mandatory dead time, meaning during that time, coaches are not allowed to coach the student athletes who play for them.
The dead time rule has under gone several overhauls, but originally was meant to do two things — prevent coach burnout and allow student athletes to participate in more than one sport.
Unfortunately, not only has the rule failed to accomplish those goals, its complicated, often misunderstood and difficult to enforce.
Access, equality and enforcement are the three main issues with the current rule. Most of those who are punished report the violations themselves, while others find creative ways around the rules.
Meanwhile, coaches feel pressure to do more and more with and for their student athletes than they ever have, while teenage athletes are choosing to specialize more than ever, especially at larger schools.
"It was a laudable goal," said assistant UHSAA director Bart Thompson, himself a former coach of three sports, of the dead time rule. "The average tenure of a football coach is four or five years. And high schools are being saddled with a difficult problem. What if a coach doesn't want to coach after nine or 10 years, but they still have a teaching position at the school. How do you find a position for a new football coach?"
The dead time rule states, "There should be no coach to player contact related to the sport, including conditioning and weight lifting, outside of the school day. This includes not observing players perform in that sport."
Specifically, the rule said coaches — paid or unpaid — cannot organize practice at any level, even in another league; they can't compete as a team, at any level; they can't hold meetings (except post-season banquets), fundraisers or open gym, open court, open pool or open field of play or use batting cages.
While most coaches believe the mandatory time off is a good idea, they acknowledge the rule is rarely enforced and has created other problems. For example, during dead time, a tennis coach can't work with his student athletes, and those students can't use the school facilities outside of the school day (athletic classes are an exception). That means if tennis players want to work on their tennis game outside of the high school season, which is only three months long, they have to join a club, find a private coach or work out at a private gym during the 12 week dead time, which has a significant cost associated with it.
This puts students and schools with less financial means at a disadvantage because while they play basketball, their competition is working with private coaches on tennis skills. It's also given club coaches more power in the lives of young athletes as there are no restrictions on the times or ways they can work with these aspiring players.
"When you take coaches away for 12 to 15 weeks, you almost create worse problems," said Becky Anderson, assistant director of the UHSAA, who along with Thompson and assistant director Kevin Dustin, are working with coaches associations to come up with a solution to the problem.
At the UHSAA's executive meeting last week, principals were asked to discuss in region meetings this month and next, a proposal that would reduce the dead time to eight weeks. But simply changing the amount of time high school coaches aren't allowed to coach their players won't solve all of the problems.
"This really comes from our discussions with coaches in the sports we deal with," said Thompson. "Our frustration in this office is trying to enforce it."
Currently, if schools don't self-report, they often aren't punished, as violations aren't known to the UHSAA. This is a frustration to schools trying to play by the rules.
"I hope if they change the rule, they make it very explicit and that there are penalties that are more severe than right now," said Hunter High athletic director and volleyball coach Pam Olson. "If they cut the time in half that we have to be away from our athletes, then it would be nice to actually have them enforce it."
Jordan head boys basketball coach Rob Geeretsen said while he favors dead time, he believes all students should have access to facilities. When he was a high school student at Logan High, he shot baskets every day at the school because it was a community recreation center.
"If coaches are willing to open the gym, there should be a way," he said. "The key is all-inclusive. I'd like to see an intramural program that allowed even more kids to participate, maybe in that dead-time period. We've got to find a way for more kids to be involved."
Allowing coaches to teach sport specific classes has only increased the gray area that often accompanies any discussion of dead time.
"Where does conditioning end and practice start?" Thompson asked. "What activity constitutes conditioning? And what constitutes practice?" He points out that schools that can't afford to pay a coach to teach an athletic class like powerlifting or weight training are at a competitive disadvantage.
"It's multi-faceted and multi-dimensional," said Thompson. "And this discussion is just beginning."
Peck and Kjar are like most high school coaches in that they like the idea of some time away from their players. The problems arise because simply allowing students access to a weight room before or after school can be a violation — depending on the coach, the season and the sport.
"I think it's a good idea for kids to keep in shape," said Kjar, who is also the school's head track coach. "We love them to play other sports, but many of them don't. We don't want them just hanging around not doing anything." The idea that kids are forbidden from using taxpayer-funded facilities makes even the most ardent supporters of dead time bristle.
"The time off is needed, and I don't have a problem with that," said Peck. "During dead time, there isn't a football out, we don't run drills or talk plays or schemes, we are not taking any chances."
But for some coaches, they do not have the luxury of having their students in an athletic period year-round.
"For boys sports they're in athletics all year long, but our girls are not," said Olson. "So our soccer coach, right now, can't even talk to his kids about grades because he's not allowed to contact them outside of school."
She favors reducing the amount of dead time simply because parents are finding other ways for their kids to continue playing that same sport, but at a greater financial cost. Players often feel pressured to join club programs or work out with private trainers just to be able to make a high school roster.
Olympus softball coach Cyndee Bennett said the push to do more with and for high school athletes comes from parents and the athletes themselves. Bennett was a three-sport athlete in high school and believes her versatility made her more attractive to the University of Utah where she earned a softball scholarship.
"Unfortunately, our student athletes have to get so sport specific in order to succeed in their primary sport," said Bennett. "I think it's good for them to have time off… The kids need the time to be kids, to focus on their academics."
She doesn't see a reduction in the dead time as an advantage or disadvantage, and it certainly won't change what parents are willing to do to help their children earn scholarships or succeed on a high school or club team.
"Some parents have the idea that an athletic scholarship is more beneficial than an academic scholarship," said Thompson. "When I look at what some are investing in club soccer or club volleyball, I'm just appalled."
Most coaches acknowledge parents will often supplement what they provide, even when it is the maximum the state allows. Unfortunately, the rules set up to protect high school coaches and student athletes may now be the cause of some of the problems.
"I think what's happening is that it's making the rich richer and the poor poorer," Thompson said. "Those schools with affluent constitutents … have the opportunity for their kids to play together year-round. The kid who can't afford to do that, a school that's not quite as blessed and a coach who may be willing to work with that kid, but is barred from doing so because of dead time. We're hoping this can be dealt with through some adjustments. It's a long discussion, and we need to decide what exactly it is we're trying to accomplish with dead time. And then we need to find something that will accomplish that."
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