The NCAA is suggesting that football teams hold no more than two contact practices per week during the season in guidelines that grew out of a safety and concussion summit early this year.
Practice limits were among several recommendations released Monday by the NCAA, which called them guidelines that could change "in real time" rather than rules passed through legislation.
The practice guidelines also recommend four contact practices per week during the preseason and no more than eight of the 15 sessions during spring football. The NCAA already has legislation regarding preseason and spring practices.
The governing body of college sports is also suggesting that schools have independent doctors to evaluate injuries and a return-to-learn process for integrating athletes back into their academic work after they have been diagnosed with a concussion.
By recommending the regular-season limit of two contact practices per week, the NCAA is essentially joining a growing chorus in college football. It's already in place in the Ivy League and Pac-12, and many teams have cut back on the number of contact practices, defined as any workout involving tackling or full-speed blocking.
"When we were working with the coaches and talking to them about this, it was amazing to see how many already were self-regulating because they realize that when the kids are beat up, they just aren't as ready to perform as well," Dr. Brian Hainline, chief medical officer for the NCAA, told The Associated Press. "And some of them have a very illuminated view of this because they also understand that when kids are beat up, they're at a greater risk of injury."
There isn't overwhelming evidence that a reduction in contact practices leads to fewer concussions, but common sense is at play for coaches who are cutting back on contact work, said Scott Anderson, Oklahoma's athletic trainer and president of the College Athletic Trainers' Society.
"We're acting on what we know," Anderson said. "The more contact, and the more intense the contact, the more likely that a concussion is to occur."
Hainline said one of the highlights for him coming out of the Safety in College Football Summit in Atlanta in January was a suggestion for schools to develop a program for getting athletes back up to speed academically after they sustain a concussion. Most of those discussions historically have involved getting a player ready to return to the field.
The academic guideline says the group making the decisions should include coaches, doctors, athletic trainers, counselors and professors.
"It's not only talking about the health and safety of the student-athletes," Hainline said. "It's a concussion guideline where we're saying, 'Look, these kids are students first and we have to make certain that if they have a concussion, there's a good return-to-learn pathway for them.'"
The guidelines suggest that medical decisions regarding players should be made "independently of a coach" and that a physician should be a medical director over a head athletic trainer. That medical team should have "unchallengeable autonomous authority" regarding a player's return to the field.
"What we're [trying] to establish with these guidelines is the perception and the reality that the physician is the linchpin," Anderson said.
"It is an important first step toward fixing the large gaps in the protection of college athletes," Chris Nowinski, founding executive director of the Sports Legacy Institute, said in a statement to ESPN.com. "It was a significant effort to develop guidelines quickly with the support of so many organizations, and the guidelines themselves make sense.
"Since they are guidelines and not rules, it will be important to monitor their adoption to ensure they are creating the necessary change to protect athletes, and going forward the players themselves need to be represented with a voice at the table, as it is their health at stake."
Hainline and Anderson also said they wanted concussion and medical evaluation protocols used in all sports, even though the summit said only football in the title.
"It was really athlete safety, knowing and understanding that the concussion experience isn't just a football issue," Anderson said. "It extends to virtually all athletes in all sports, some at greater risk than others."
Ramogi Huma, president of the College Athletes Players Association, the group pursuing unionization of athletes at Northwestern, told ESPN's Tom Farrey the NCAA did not go far enough in creating protections for players.
"These are not mandates," Huma said.
Huma also objected to how the NCAA defined a contact practice. Not included in the two-days-a-week maximum are so-called "thud" practices or drills that involve wrapping up, in which players are not taken to the ground and contact, according to the NCAA guidelines, is "not aggressive in nature."
To Huma, that leaves a lot of room for interpretation by coaches, and for concussions to occur. He said the NCAA needs to adopt the standard used by the NFL and NFL Players Association -- contact defined by how players are asked to dress at practice. If there's helmets, there's head contact.
Hainline told ESPN the guidelines could be adjusted later to include the contact Huma wants included.
"The definition of live contact, we worked that through with numerous coaches and trainers," he said. "They said define it by the level of contact, not the uniform worn. It's a starting point. Right now, we just don't have the data from the NFL on what they've done."
Nowinski lauded the NCAA for its effort, with a caveat.
"It is an important first step toward fixing the large gaps in the protection of college athletes," he said. "It was a significant effort to develop guidelines quickly with the support of so many organizations, and the guidelines themselves make sense. Since they are guidelines and not rules, it will be important to monitor their adoption to ensure they are creating the necessary change to protect athletes, and going forward the players themselves need to be represented with a voice at the table, as it is their health at stake."
The issuance of the guidelines comes on the eve of several major events impacting the future of the NCAA.
On Tuesday, Huma and Nowinski will be among the expert witnesses to testify before the Boston City council on a pair of proposed ordinances that aim to provide more health and safety protections for college athletes competing within city limits. Also Tuesday, the NCAA will submit its post-trial brief to the federal court in the Ed O'Bannon anti-trust suit. Then on Wednesday, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, will hold a hearing on Capitol Hill on the NCAA's treatment of athletes.
Michael Hausfeld, lead plaintiffs' lawyer in the O'Bannon case, said the timing of the release of the guidelines was not coincidental and reflected an attempt by the NCAA to "retain control of their own destiny" in the face of many challenges. The NCAA had previously stated that it had no legal responsibility to protect the safety of athletes.
"It's a very cursory beginning in recognizing that there's a duty to these athletes that arises out of the origins of NCAA itself," he said. "It contradicts their denial of any duty to the athletes in their answers to the claims filed in court. It addresses some of the most immediate concerns regarding contact during practice and during games, and the evaluations that need to be made before returning to play or academics.
"But now they have to go much deeper and get a baseline to find out what has happened to these athletes, what consequences they've experienced both physically and mentally, then establish a (mandatory) protocol going forward. And they need to provide for redress from all those who are suffering from the after-effects of concussions which the NCAA has ignored for decades."
However, Hausfeld said guidelines will help promote better policies by schools, by creating a legal standard that becomes hard to ignore.
"It gives greater strength (in civil suits) to those who are injured while playing for programs that fail to adopt these guidelines," Hausfeld said. "It's an acknowledgement that this is a real issue. And it sets forth a guideline at a minimum what should be done. If you disregard the very minimum, and someone injured, you have a stronger claim."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
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