Back in May, the Social Science & Medicine journal published a study that documented how concussions among college athletes are suffered, treated, and reported. And while college football players were curiously omitted from the collection of athletes observed in this report, the study nevertheless pointed out that while concussion-related discussion is all the rage these days, little in the way of actual corrective action has been taken. At the time, I observed that the NCAA had done little in the way of proactively addressing the concussion concern, opting instead to leave the hefty lifting on this issue to the universities themselves by championing a policy that failed to monitor implementation of a concussion plan or strategy at the institutional level.
With the start of college football season just weeks away, on August 4th researchers from the University of Virginia took direct aim at the sport’s concussion approach, releasing a study that sought to analyze the relationship between concussions and various types of practice and game activity. The study, entitled “Practice type effects on head impact in collegiate football” and published in the Journal of Neurosurgery, examined the number and severity of concussive head impacts sustained by college football players over an entire season (both during practices and games). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the researchers found that the number of head impacts varied depending on the intensity of the activity. According to the report, football players experienced a much smaller average number of head hits during helmet-only practices (with no pads) than they did during the so-called “shell” practices (light pads), full-pad practices, or games. Put more simply, the less “protection” worn by the players, the less chance for the type of debilitating head hits that often times result in concussions. Or as the study itself noted, “the level of protective equipment worn is generally a good proxy measure for the intensity of a practice.”
Again, we aren’t anywhere near the realm of earth-shattering scientific breakthrough yet, a statement even the study’s authors seemingly wouldn’t dispute. According to the Huffington Post, one of the authors, Jason Druzgal said, “It seemed like sort of an intuitive finding [at first]. We didn’t really think much of it.” Not until, that is, the authors went to look at the NCAA’s rules governing football practices (in order to compare their findings), and discovered that, well, there really aren’t any. Rather than any kind of codified rules explicitly addressing the permissible amount of practices in full pads versus those of, say, the helmet-only variety, the NCAA merely offers suggested football practice guidelines.
And in sticking with the general approach of its overall concussion policy – the NCAA seems not to be a fan of the “Trust, but verify” school of thought on multiple important issues – the NCAA doesn’t seek to enforce these football practice guidelines, either. NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline told The Huffington Post that the guidelines put “cultural pressure on everyone to follow through” (as if those “cultural pressures” have never been know to fail before in the arenas of player eligibility, weekly practice time allotments, or student-athlete compensation). Further, Hainline went on to state, “Is everyone following them [the football practice guidelines]? I don’t know with certainty. But I’m pretty sure they are.” Sounds scientific. Compare the NCAA’s approach to the NFL’s handling of this issue, for example: as part of its 2011 collective bargaining agreement, the NFL agreed to limit the amount of full-contact practices during both training camp and the regular season. And at the risk of poking the 800-pound gorilla that is seemingly in every room at all times, as a general rule, is it good policy to be at least four years behind the NFL in anything player safety-related?
The UVA researchers, for their part, don’t believe so, stating: “The present data suggest that similar regulations in college football [to those in the NFL] would reduce the burden of head impact for thousands of athletes. While the research community should continue to investigate the cause and nature of these practice type differences, the potential human cost of leaving practice equipment unregulated seems unnecessarily high.” And the potential human cost is at the heart of this issue, as the student-athletes are the ones that bear the risk here. Because even if the conclusions based on the available research ultimately proves to be wrong or mistaken, then the worst case scenario is that student-athletes will be subjected to less head impact injuries than they were before. The authors of UVA study were even less sanguine about college football’s ability or likelihood to self-correct on this issue absent intervention from the NCAA, stating, “An individual team is not going to reduce its aggressive practices if it’s going to reduce its competitive advantage…So [any real change] has to be at the NCAA level.”
The good news (at least there is some), is that February of 2016 should see the completion of the first round of a $30 million concussion initiative between the NCAA and the Department of Defense that purports to be the largest study in the history of concussion research. And Hainline is confident that the conclusion of this study will produce “fairly compelling data that is going to first lead to an update in the guidelines, and I’m hopeful that’s going to be a pathway for legislation.” While that language is less than decisive and legislation is not an overnight solution (and there needs to be some serious oversight and enforcement responsibilities baked into any prospective legislation, as the stakes are simply too high), there appears to be on the horizon, at long last, some actual NCAA rules that substantively address the concussion epidemic.