5 Things You Need to Know About NCAA's New Football Safety Guidelines

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistJuly 7, 2014

5 Things You Need to Know About NCAA's New Football Safety Guidelines

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    The NCAA announced an updated set of football safety guidelines Monday afternoon, recommending that schools limit the amount of hitting done in practice and reform part of their medical care and concussion programs.

    The guidelines were crafted through a collaborative process that began in January and included input from numerous sources.

    Per the official release:

    The seeds for these guidelines were planted in January when the College Athletic Trainers' Society and the NCAA Sport Science Institute jointly hosted the Safety in College Football Summit in Atlanta. Attendees included athletic trainers, neurologists, team physicians, university sports medicine program directors, the American Football Coaches Association and representatives from the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC, Ivy League and Conference USA, among other conferences. Together, through two days of discussion, the group laid the foundation upon which these guidelines ultimately were built. And while the summit focused on football, two of the resulting documents are germane to all contact sports.

    "When you build inter-association consensus, I think it speaks much more powerfully because it's not simply the NCAA making a rule," said NCAA Chief Medical Officer Brian Hainline, whom ESPN's Tom Farrey said the guidelines were a brainchild of. "It's consensus from numerous well-respected medical organizations, from football coaches, from football associations, from all of us.

    "In terms of changing the culture around health and safety," Hainline continued, "that's the best way to do it."

    It's important to note that these are safety guidelines, not safety mandates. Programs are advised to adhere to them, but they are not required to by NCAA law. They are more of a forceful suggestion.

    Still, this is a positive step in the right direction for safety reform in collegiate football—especially once you consider the specifics.

    Here are five things you need to know.

Restriction on Number of Live-Contact Practices

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    Perhaps the biggest development from this release is the establishment of a guideline for two live-contact practices per week during the season.

    That goes for the entire year: "Inseason, postseason and bowl season." Coaches are being asked to spare their players from three or more days of hitting between games that include so much of it.

    The word "asked" is important there, however, as the release is not establishing a hard-and-fast rule about live-contact practices. In theory, a coach could continue having three or more days of hitting per week without repercussion. These are guidelines, not ordinances.

    Montana State head coach Rob Ash said the following, per the release:

    These guidelines are strict in concept but flexible in design, allowing coaches ample freedom to design practice schedules while limiting the amount of full-contact situations that players will experience. There is no doubt in my mind that coaching staffs across the country at all levels will enthusiastically endorse these guidelines and incorporate them into their football practice regimen.

    The preseason guideline calls for a maximum of four live-hitting days per week, no consecutive full-contact practices during two-a-days and no more than 12 live-hitting sessions in total before the season.

Pac-12 and Ivy League Had Already Adopted Contact Guideline

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    The standard of no more than two live practices per week is new as an NCAA-wide initiative, but it is not new to the sport.

    The Ivy League adopted the policy in 2011, and the Pac-12 followed its lead in 2013. The official release recognizes both of those initiatives, noting that the new guideline is meant to mirror their policies.

    "With input from Pac-12 coaches, these practice contact policies have worked well in the Pac-12," said former Washington and current USC head coach Steve Sarkisian, per NCAA.com. "As coaches, it is important we maintain our ability to prepare our teams to compete each week while also looking at ways to ensure their safety."

    The template for this system is already in place.

Call for Public Concussion Policies

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    Apart from the live-hitting guidelines, the NCAA also released an updated set of suggestions regarding medical care and concussion policies—advice that applies to all contact sports, not just football.

    Standing out among those rules is a call for institutions to "make their concussion management plan publicly available, either through printed material, their website, or both," per the release.

    Adherence to this guideline would mean a new layer of transparency for college athletics. Parents of student-athletes would be able to compare the concussion policies of different institutions before their child commits to one over the other or the other.

    According to Tom Farrey of ESPN, this "could promote competition for recruits." But in this case, competition would be very healthy.

National College Players Association Is Not Placated

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    Former UCLA football player Ramogi Huma, the labor activist who teamed with former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter to start the National College Players Association and win Colter's former teammates the right to unionize, is not placated by these guidelines.

    The NCPA has been lobbying for safety reform since its inception, but Huma thinks that non-mandatory guidelines do not go far enough.

    "These are not mandates," Huma told Tom Farrey of ESPN. He also took issue with the nebulous definition of the word "contact."

    On that front, Huma suggested the NCAA adopt the standard established by the NFL/NFLPA: that contact is defined by how players are asked to dress at practice—i.e., if they are asked to wear helmets.

The Guidelines Can Be Adjusted in Real-Time

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    At the end of May, the NCAA and the United State Department of Defense announced that they were teaming together to launch a $30 million study into concussion management, per NCAA.com.

    Because of this research project—along with the general speed of medical advancements—the NCAA knows that these guidelines might become outdated at some point. It knows that they might need to be reformed, once again, and has given itself the flexibility to do that.

    "Medicine really is a process that's much more fluid, which led us to the guideline approach rather than pursuing legislation," said NCAA Chief Medial Officer Brian Hainline, per the release. "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."

    This defense is an ostensible rebuttal to the criticism of Ramogi Huma (and all like-minded thinkers). According to the NCAA, it is suggesting rather than mandating these reforms because it allows for the flexibility to change specific policies as new information emerges.

    The question, then, becomes one of internal logistics. Would signing the reforms into law have made amending them a longer process?

    If the answer is decisively "yes," then the mandate approach makes sense. If not, then Huma and his team have a compelling case.