Growing concussion threat: Pac-12 will reduce contact in practices

The growing threat of concussions in college sports -- physically, medically and legally -- have become clearer in the last week.

The Pac-12 announced Monday it will institute football contact reduction as part of a league-wide health initiative. Read between the lines, and the conference basically is going to monitor how many times teams can hit in full pads per week during practice. The conference will reveal details on July 26.

How this news will be received by coaches is unknown. But a good first guess? Not good. Coaches are control freaks at heart and don't want to be told how to coach their teams. But the concussion threat at all levels has become too big to ignore. There isn't a football helmet in existence that can prevent concussions. In fact, helmet manufacturers have shut down, unable to do business after receiving massive financial judgments against them in court.

"Overall, I'm glad they're proactive and sensitive to stuff," said Washington State's Mike Leach, never one to have his teams hit much in practice. "I don't think it's going to impact us very much. We've always been characterized by short practices. Once we get going in the season, it's helmets, shoulder pads and shorts.

"It's because of injuries. We want to play as fast as possible. You get more out of them. You want to save their legs ... There's a point where you wear them down."

Research is getting more detailed and more compelling showing how former NFL players are dealing with degenerative brain issues. Those have to start somewhere. Recent NCAA data shows the rate of football-related concussions has remained steady over the past eight years.

Still, college officials are becoming more aware. Two years ago, the Ivy League limited teams to two full-contact practices per week during the season. While full-contact practices have seemingly decreased at the college level in general in recent years, different coaches have different ways of getting their teams ready. And they sure as heck don't want to be told what to do at the practice level. Is one full-pad practice per week enough? Are three?

Then there is the competitive issue. If the Pac-12 is limiting full-contact practices, does that put teams at a competitive disadvantage with other leagues?

College players newly drafted to the NFL are going through organized team activities (OTAs) and workouts during a nine-week period in the offseason. Not once during that time is an NFL player allowed to wear pads or hit. Meanwhile, just-completed college spring practices are overseen by the NCAA, which allows contact in 10 of 15 practices.

The NFL has been ahead of colleges on the subject of concussions, if only because the pros are way down the line in dealing with the legal side of the subject. Thousands of former players are suing the NFL in an ongoing class-action court battle. The NCAA has yet to endure a similar lawsuit, but the threat of one is a hot-button item with college administrators. The association created the position of chief medical officer in hiring Brian Hainline this year.

The SEC, Ivy, Big Ten and Pac-12 had been the leaders on the subject to date. Last week, the SEC asked the NCAA to take the lead on concussion prevention. Last year, the Big Ten and Ivy League announced a joint head-trauma initiative.

It's a noble pursuit but a dicey situation. Two attorneys speaking at a Fiesta Bowl Summit discussion on concussions told an audience that it might be advisable for the NCAA to think hard about including hard and fast concussion prevention rules in its annual Sports Medicine Handbook. Such a practice, they said, could leave the NCAA open to liability.


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
 
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