A recent NPR story on efforts to reduce the incidence of heat stroke deaths of young athletes raises interesting issues about federalism and regulation.
As anyone who lives in the South knows, football practices begin in earnest during the summer. The hot, humid Southern weather and the conditions of practice and workouts (lots of physical exertion, lack of shade, a “macho” environment where it’s expected that the players will endure demands that push them to the edge of physical limits) have led to the deaths of young players from heatstroke. According to the NPR story, five high school players died of heat stroke last year; more deaths have occurred in previous years.
The deaths have led to research about conditions that will mitigate the threat of heatstroke (for example, practice in a t-shirt and shorts keeps players significantly cooler than practice in uniforms and padding). It has also led to the formation and adoption of guidelines by the National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA) to help coaches create practices that enable players to adapt to practicing and playing in the heat. According to the NPR story, “The guidelines require a certain number of days at the beginning of the practice season without full uniforms. They limit the number of two-a-day practices that teams can have. They also recommend having an athletic trainer on site — something fewer than half of high schools do.” Craig Lemoult, the reporter for the story, further notes that only “nine states have fully adopted the task force guidelines.” He ends the piece by noting that because the policies guiding high school athletic training policies are governed by state policies, concerned parents who want football practices conducted according to the NATA recommendations must advocate for their adoption in each state.
Given that few states have adopted the guidelines, a committed set of parents could launch a lobbying effort to Congress to get the passage of legislation that would require any state that received federal education funds to adopt the NATA guidelines. That congressional legislation could require, rather than recommend, an athletic trainer on site. One could imagine that cash-strapped state schools who don’t have athletic trainers (according to the NPR story, this is less than half of all high schools) might protest the imposition of another cost to their budgets. If they decided to challenge this legislation, the following questions would be raised:
1) How could this legislation be justified under the Constitution? Is it an exercise of the commerce power? If so, how?
2) If passed, would the legislation be an imposition of legitimate federal regulation or a coercion on the states? What factors would affect the answer to this question?
 Craig Lemoult, “Heat Guidelines Help Keep Young Athletes Cool,” http://www.npr.org/2012/08/28/160114705/heat-guidelines-help-keep-young-athletes-cool, accessed 8/28/2012.