NCAA should limit contact in spring

Originally Published: April 30, 2013
By Rod Gilmore | ESPN Insider

A couple of weeks from now, newly drafted former college players will join their NFL teammates in the NFL's nine-week offseason practice program. But not a single player will wear pads or have live contact during any of those practices. The NFL doesn't allow it. The league determined that it's not good for the long-term brain health of its players to have that offseason contact.

[+] EnlargeJosh Huff
AP Photo/Don RyanShould the NCAA consider limiting contact during spring practices?

Contrast the NFL's approach to the NCAA's. Most NCAA teams recently concluded their spring practices, including their popular spring games. (More than 570,000 total fans showed up to watch the spring practice games of SEC teams, including more than 83,000 at Auburn and 78,000 at Alabama.) The NCAA permits 15 spring practices and allows live contact in 80 percent of those practices, and permits tackling in more than 50 percent of the practices. The NCAA rules have not been adjusted in approximately 20 years. Since then, we have discovered much more about the impact of cumulative contact on players. It's now time for the NCAA to review and change its practice rules.

Why do this? Because it's necessary. According to medical experts, every block and every tackle in the spring is one more hit that brings a player closer to having long-term brain damage. Each tackle and each block jars the body -- much like being in a car crash. Each time that happens, the brain hits the inside of the skull. (It is difficult to determine the actual amount of contact players have during practices since it varies by coaches, drills and repetitions for players. Some research suggests that the number approximates an estimated 200-plus hits per game.) The cumulative effect of all those crashes over time creates the risk of long-term brain damage. As a result of this, the NFL eliminated live contact during the offseason last year in order to reduce that risk.

The football industry has been under fire for the past several years due to medical and legal concerns relating to head injuries -- most notably concussions. The suicides of former NFL stars Junior Seau and Dave Duerson brought increased attention to the topic. Medical researchers have determined that there is a clear connection between the physical nature of football and early dementia or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) (a progressive degenerative brain disease believed to be caused by multiple concussions or cumulative contact). Most fans understand that concussions can occur with a single hit, and that concussions are more likely once one has occurred. But most fans do not understand that a player can suffer long-term damage without sustaining a concussion.

In other words, the cumulative effect of tackling and blocking (without sustaining a concussion) can, over time, lead to long-term brain damage. This has become such a concern in the medical profession that some medical experts have described head injuries in sports as a public health issue because so many people of all ages play contact sports (e.g., football, rugby, soccer, lacrosse, hockey, wrestling, etc.).

And this is not just a health risk -- it's also a legal liability risk. For example, more than 4,000 former players have sued the NFL, alleging that the NFL failed to disclose to them the dangers of concussions. Separately, a Colorado jury recently awarded a high school student a multi-million dollar judgment against helmet manufacturer Riddell for inadequate concussion warnings. Other lawsuits are pending as well and it may not be long before the NCAA and its member institutions are in the crosshairs.

The NFL appropriately responded to these medical and legal concerns by implementing rule changes designed to reduce concussions caused by single hits to the head (e.g., targeting, as well as a new rule regarding running backs using the crown of their helmet against a defender in the open field). The NCAA, upon the recommendation of the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA), did the same by adding its own set of rules disciplining players for a hit "above the shoulders" or targeting an opponent.

However, the NFL did not stop with rules aimed at eliminating single hits that can cause concussions. The NFL also adopted rules eliminating live contact during offseason practices in order to reduce the risk of long-term brain damage caused by cumulative hits. NFL players are not allowed to wear pads during offseason workouts. The idea is simply to follow the medical research: reducing the amount of contact should reduce the chance of long-term brain damage for players resulting from the effect of cumulative contact.

While the NCAA has taken action on single "concussion" hits, it has not, however, addressed the danger caused by cumulative contact during the offseason in two decades. Back then the AFCA led the charge to create the current rules, which were designed to reduce common on-field injuries during the spring (e.g., broken bones, knee injuries, etc.). When I played (1978-82), there were no concerns about the impact of cumulative hits on the brain. There were 20 spring practices and contact was allowed in almost all of those practices (18). In the 1990s, the AFCA recommended, and the NCAA approved, the reduction in the number of spring practices from 20 to its current level of 15. It also changed the rules to permit contact in 12 of the 15 spring practices, and allowing actual tackling in 8 of the 15 practices. Three full scrimmages (11 on 11) are allowed (including a spring game).

But by comparison to the NFL, that's a lot of contact today in light of what we now know about the impact of cumulative contact. The current NCAA rules are archaic. The AFCA is aware of this issue and believes that practice rules it helped create two decades ago should be revised again. Says AFCA Executive Director Grant Teaff, "Less contact means less likelihood of injury [after football] -- it's just good common sense [to change the rules]."

However, there are certainly benefits to college players having some contact in the spring. Of course, coaches want to evaluate players in pads (e.g., do they play faster or slower; are they tough; can they strike-deliver a blow; etc.). But that evaluation can certainly be done during fall practices. In my view, the critical reason to have some contact in the spring is player safety. Players, particularly inexperienced players out of high school, need more repetitions on the proper techniques for blocking and tackling than experienced players (experienced upper classmen and NFL players). They can get that during the spring more so than while game planning occurs during the regular season. Repetition allows players to learn to keep their head up when tackling/blocking, to keep their eyes open and not to lunge at the target. If they do not get this training, it is fair to be concerned that head and neck injuries could rise during the regular season.

It is not just the offseason contact the during in the offseason that is an issue -- it's also the contact during regular season practices. The NCAA's practice rules during the season are far more liberal than NFL rules. Under NCAA rules, the amount of padded practices or hitting is unlimited during the season. The amount of contact during the season is left up to the head coach of each school. (That is, after a mandatory five-day acclamation period and certain other practice limits before the first game.) Of course, most college coaches limit contact to two practices per week and reduce contact to one day per week as the season progresses -- but not all of them. A couple of years ago, I watched as a head coach put his team through a full-contact practice the day before a critical late-season game -- the third padded practice of the week.

That could never happen in today's NFL. The NFL strictly limits the number of contact (or padded) practices teams can have during the season and the head coach may not exceed that limited number.

What should the NCAA do about cumulative hits? One option is to simply adopt the NFL model and eliminate contact in the spring completely. But, as noted above, college players need more training in blocking and tackling than NFL players.

Another option is to reduce contact for spring practices and set limits during the regular season as the NFL has done. I favor this approach, but what should those limits be and to whom should they apply? I believe that is the discussion the NCAA needs to have now in balancing the risk and benefits of contact during the spring. The NCAA can readily turn to the NFL, medical research and the AFCA for input on this issue. In my opinion, the following should be done:

1. Contact should be limited to inexperienced players.
2. Reduce the number of scrimmages (one scrimmage and one spring game).
3. Limit pads to only one-third of the spring practices.
4. Limit contact during the regular season to no more than two padded practices per week during the first half of the season and reduced it to one per week during the second half of the season.

It is not in the best interest of college football for the NCAA to ignore the recent research on the risk of cumulative contact. That approach will only exacerbate the public concern about the risks of playing the game and leave open the risk of future lawsuits. It is time to re-visit the NCAA's rules on practice.

Rod Gilmore

College Football analyst
Rod Gilmore serves as an ESPN studio analyst on SportsCenter and College Football Live, and provides commentary on ESPN's Friday night game telecasts. He writes regularly for ESPN Insider.