This summer felt different. In August, my family came home from vacation to an Austin singed by heat; to ocher lawns and burnt leaves and highs of 106, 107, 109. The days were both deeply melancholy and surreal. Neighborhood streets were empty by midday, while cooler places, like Barton Springs Pool, were thronged at sunrise. We sometimes call heat oppressive, but by August we’d gone beyond that. The oppressor had won, crushed the resistance, made us stupid and strange.
And then it was football season. My son, a tall, slim basketball fanatic, told me in the spring that he wanted to play for his middle school’s team, though he’d never played tackle football before. I had some qualms, but I talked to the coach and managed to convince myself that my son could make it through one season of eighth-grade football more or less unscathed.
That was back in April. I wasn’t even thinking about heat yet.
Then the weather gods locked us all in a sauna and threw away the key. With the extraordinary heat wave came warnings and news reports, and I found myself Googling stuff. Youth football players were already at risk for heat illness before this summer. In 2020, Rue McNeil, eighteen, died from complications of heatstroke after collapsing during practice in the Panhandle town of Guthrie. In August of last year, Loney Diaz, seventeen, of Corpus Christi, also died from heatstroke after a football practice. Now it was hotter. Would it be safe to play? How hot is too hot?
This question hangs over all outdoor sports and activities, but football players are particularly susceptible because they wear more gear than other athletes. And the sport has a tradition of pushing to extremes, hot weather be damned. It’s also easy for heat illness to sneak up on you, said Jeff Goodell, author of The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet. Many of us still “don’t have any sense of the real risks of heat,” Goodell said. “The difference between playing football on a 95-degree day and a 110-degree day—these differences in temperature are incredibly meaningful to our bodies.”
When the air is hotter than our own body temperature, we can get into trouble quickly. Our bodies want to hum along at 98.6 degrees, so if you generate heat internally through physical activity or gain heat from hotter air, you have to counter that heat with sweat, which cools you as it evaporates. Drinking water is necessary so that you can keep sweating, but it’s not always enough. If you’re in a humid environment, the sweat doesn’t evaporate as well and the process breaks down, and even on a dry day, it only works up to a point. Beyond that, you’ll start to show symptoms of heat exhaustion such as nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and either heavy sweating or a lack of sweat. Once your body temperature rises to 105 or higher, your cell walls start to deteriorate. This is heatstroke: essentially, your insides start to melt.
There was a time when many football coaches denied players water breaks, supposedly to make them “tougher.” Now in Texas, heat-safety training is part of a certification required of public school coaches by the University Interscholastic League (UIL). Coaching staff must also follow a five-day heat-acclimatization protocol, which allows players’ bodies to gradually adapt to higher temperatures. At my son’s school, in compliance with Austin Independent School District (AISD) guidelines, the team also takes water breaks every twenty minutes under a shade structure, and coaches provide towels soaked in ice water to help the boys cool down.
These are great steps to take. Odds are my son will not melt. But the crazy heat in August still made me wonder if we’re doing enough. Look up heat safety information for football, and you’ll soon come across guidelines developed by researchers in Georgia based on data from 25 high school football programs there. In addition to a heat acclimatization period, the guidelines advise tracking the wet-bulb globe temperature (WBGT), a measurement that takes into account the air temperature, humidity, solar radiation, and wind speed. This number gives you a better sense of how well the average human can cool herself than does temperature alone (or the heat index, which is a standard based on how hot it would feel to walk in the shade wearing short sleeves and long pants). There’s a color-coded chart that tells you which activity levels are safe for various ranges of WBGT, adjusted for geographic region. In Texas, once the WBGT is 90.1 F or above, you shouldn’t practice for more than an hour. Above 92.1 degrees, you shouldn’t do any outdoor activity at all.
WBGT is a little confusing, because it’s distinct from the air temperature: the ambient temperature can be 105 and, provided it’s not too humid and there’s at least a little wind, you could have a WBGT below 92.1. It’s also hyperlocal—the measurement you take on a sunny field will differ from the measurement you take under a tree next to the field—and you need a good-quality WBGT device, which costs around $500.
This year, the UIL put the same chart on its website as a recommendation. (It was not, as some news outlets reported, a rule or a mandate.) I was happy to learn this—though the more I learned, the less happy I felt. It’s up to school districts to decide their own policies, and for our district, according to a document sent out to coaches, that meant using the WBGT “and/or” the air temperature “and/or” the heat index. This directive struck me as good and/or bad.
The Friday before school started, I talked to my son’s coach about heat safety. He explained that it wouldn’t work to move practice from its regular after-school time to early morning or evening. Maybe parents could pitch in to buy one of these WBGT devices, I suggested. He told me he’d been using an app. Based on what I’d read, it seemed better to have a device at the practice field, but I was still learning about all this. Maybe I should get an app, I thought.
The coach is a big, gentle Texan who loves his sport. (“There’s just something special about football,” he told me during the call.) Once, because I found it hard to picture, I asked my son whether this man ever gave stern, alpha-coach lectures; the answer was that although he would begin them, often he’d break the mood with a joke. As a rule, he speaks carefully, sometimes pausing for a bit, so on the phone I couldn’t tell whether the call had become a little tense or whether the silences were just the usual ones.
Back when he was playing high school football, the coach told me, he once had to do a full-length practice when it was 116 degrees out, something that would never happen today. In his voice, I heard the assurance of someone with years and years of Texas football experience who has played and coached on plenty of very hot days. But this summer was so unusual that I was having a hard time putting full faith in someone’s experience, unless it was the experience of playing football in, say, Saudi Arabia. At the same time, I could see how a person with so much Texas football under his belt might respond to a mom on the phone—one with no relevant experience who’d read some things on the internet—with long pauses.
WeatherStem is the name of the app the coach was using; I consulted the web version and also downloaded two other apps. This only made the problem murkier, because the three apps supplied three different WBGT numbers, each of which would have led to a different safety recommendation on the colored chart.
The CEO of WeatherStem, Edward Mansouri, lives in Tallahassee, Florida, and is the dad of a soccer player with a medical condition, so he’s given careful thought to exercising safely in hot weather. When I reached him on the phone, he told me about the monitoring unit in Austin, which is trimmed in UT colors and installed across Interstate 35 from the university’s football stadium, on top of the East Campus Garage.
That parking garage is just a half mile from my son’s school, I said. Would it be reasonable to use the app’s WBGT reading to decide whether it was safe to practice?
The app shouldn’t be used for exclusive guidance, Mansouri told me. “The wind and the movement of the air on top of that parking garage may be significantly different than the movement of the air where your son, his teammates, and his coaches are participating,” he said. “The trainer should have a handheld WGBT sensor that they can carry around with them.” In other words, while the app is a good gauge of how safe it would be to hold practice on top of the East Campus Garage, it may well underestimate the risk to players at a nearby field.
Then, in the middle of my journey down this meteorological rabbit hole, I tested positive for COVID. A few days later, so did my son. At least it would keep him from doing fast-feet drills in an air fryer, I figured. We stayed inside the whole time.
On the day my son went back to school, another scorcher, I spoke with Sam Cheuvront, a sports scientist who spent almost twenty years at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine and now runs his own consulting business. It was around 2:30 p.m. and already about 103 out; the eventual high would be 106, 10 degrees above average for that date. Just before our call, Cheuvront told me, he’d looked up the conditions in Austin and estimated our local WBGT to be 93.3, a black-flag reading. (As ever, the WBGT in a specific location might well be different.) With extreme heat, it’s important to use common sense, he said. “If it’s going to be 103 at noon, could you move practice to early morning, or later in the evening, or indoors?” He also urged “active cooling” during breaks, which could mean using fans or retreating to an air-conditioned space or dunking your forearms in ice water.
According to the district guidelines, at an air temperature of 105 and/or a WBGT of 90.1, a middle school practice is supposed to be limited to 45 minutes, with a 5-minute water break every 20 minutes. My phone said it was 105, but on WeatherStem it was 103, and over the course of the afternoon the app’s WBGT readings ranged between 86 and 89.4. I sent my husband to pull our son from practice after an hour, when it was still in full swing.
The next week, at a Zoom meeting put on by the coach for the seventh- and eighth-grade team families, parents were, of course, eager to help out. The coach mentioned that in the past, parents have bought matching socks for the players, sometimes helmet decals. Everyone was fired up about the socks, and a person asked whether we could also supply postpractice snacks? The chat was popping. Someone posted a link to red athletic socks on Amazon.
What is the matter with you? I asked myself. Why do you have to go calling up scientists when what is wanted in this situation are PowerBars and sweat socks? At the same time, I found myself tallying the likely cost of sixty pairs of socks and daily snacks, confident we could afford a WBGT sensor for less than that. But in an email to the coach, I’d again offered to raise money for one, and he didn’t take me up on it.
What I didn’t know then was that the school district was about to change its policy, because an AISD football player had just nearly died of heatstroke. On August 24, during the first game of the season, Justice Trumpler, seventeen, a senior offensive lineman for Bowie High School, started vomiting right after halftime. He landed in the ICU with brain swelling and kidney failure, unable to recognize his own mom. In response, Austin ISD issued a statement that emphasized the importance of water breaks. The district has since decided to purchase WBGT devices for all middle and high schools, a spokesperson wrote in an email to Texas Monthly. AISD will also require more frequent water breaks and reduce practice times from ninety minutes to an hour in extreme heat. Although the changes don’t clarify how the practice guidelines apply to games, this is a big step in the right direction. That said, it seems pretty clear that what Trumpler needed most was for a trainer to recognize the symptoms of heat illness and get him off the field.
Across the state, school football programs need clear rules and better education regarding WBGT and how to measure it accurately. The Georgia High School Association, for example, requires that WBGT readings be taken at the practice field with a quality instrument. I contacted the UIL to find out whether it might adopt the WBGT guidelines as a rule, and I spoke with the organization’s deputy director, Jamey Harrison. It’s up to the UIL’s Medical Advisory Committee, he explained. If the committee recommends such a rule, then it could be in place by next season.
We should also consider what lies ahead—namely, even higher temperatures in future summers. As playing football in August in Texas becomes more dangerous, we ought to be talking about shifting the start of the season later, if not the start of school itself.
The day after the team Zoom meeting, I called Bud Cooper, the University of Georgia researcher whose team created the WBGT chart. I played devil’s advocate. Heat acclimatization and water breaks in the shade were also among Cooper’s original recommendations; might only those measures, implemented by an experienced coach, be safe enough?
“My answer to that is, if you are adamant about driving about the highways at 95 miles per hour because you’re a good driver and you haven’t had an accident, go ahead and knock yourself out,” Cooper said. “At some point you’re going to have an accident.” An average of three U.S. football players each year have died of heatstroke, he said, most of them at the high school level. Every one of those deaths was preventable.