New guidelines released by the NCAA and the College Athletic Trainers’ Society on Monday recommend limiting live-contact football practices to two per week during the regular season, postseason, and bowl season.
The guidelines, which drew upon expertise from coaches, conference officials, and medical professionals throughout the NCAA, stemmed from a two-day sports-safety summit hosted in Atlanta earlier this year by both groups. Over the past six months, a working group has been formulating specific recommendations regarding three key issues from that summit: independent medical care, concussion diagnosis and management, and contact in football practices.
Currently, the NCAA has no legislation addressing the frequency of contact practices allowed during football’s regular season, postseason, or bowl season. Therefore, the new football-practice guidelines recommend limiting coaches to no more than two live-contact practices, defined as “any practice that involves live tackling to the ground and/or full-speed blocking,” per week.
For preseason, the NCAA guidelines suggest that institutions which hold two-a-day practices should be limited to live-contact practices only once per day. Only four live-contact practices should be held in a given week, the association recommends, with no more than 12 total throughout the preseason. For the 15 allowed spring practice sessions under current NCAA regulations, the new guidelines suggest implementing live contact in no more than eight practices.
The Ivy League implemented a similar reduction in regular-season, full-contact practices back in 2011, and the Pac-12 Conference announced its intention to follow suit last summer. Opponents of the concept often suggest that reducing the amount of time spent teaching youth-athletes proper tackling techniques could lead to an increase in injuries.
In terms of recovery from a concussion, the NCAA now recommends a stepwise progression for both return to athletic competition and return to academics. The first step for both returning to play and the classroom is relative physical and cognitive rest, which means limiting exposure to school work, reading, television, and texting.
“For the college student-athlete, consideration should be given to avoiding the classroom for at least the same day as the sport-related concussion,” the guidelines read. “The period of time needed to avoid class or homework should be individualized.”
The final set of recommendations focuses on individualized medical care, which is especially important when team doctors are the ones making return-to-play decisions for potentially concussed student-athletes. The NCAA thus suggests that “institutional medical line of authority should be established independently of a coach, and in the sole interest of student-athlete health and welfare.”
In other words: It doesn’t matter how important a given game or competition is. If a youth-athlete is concussed, the medical professional should have final say over the coach in terms of preventing that athlete from re-entering competition that day.
In a statement, Dr. Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, explained why the association pursued the route of recommendations instead of formal legislation for these new safety guidelines.
“Medicine really is a process that’s much more fluid, which led us to the guideline approach rather than pursuing legislation,” he said. “The words we like to use are ‘living, breathing.’ We’d much rather have a living, breathing document that can shift based on emerging evidence.”
Though the NCAA collected a laundry list of praise from coaches and medical professionals regarding these new guidelines, not everyone is pleased. Ramogi Huga, the president of the College Athletes Players Association, told ESPN.com’s Tom Farrey that the association fell short in terms of protecting players.
“These are not mandates,” Huma told Farrey.
Now that the NCAA has taken this step toward increasing protection of student-athletes, it’s worth monitoring whether any (or how many) conferences follow suit and adopt these recommendations.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.