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Researchers Call for NCAA to Limit Full-Contact Football Practices

Collegiate football players are being placed at unnecessary risk because the National Collegiate Athletic Association has yet to establish limits on full-contact practices, suggests a study published online Aug. 4 in the Journal of Neurosurgery.

Researchers from the University of Virginia's School of Medicine had 16 football players from the school wear impact-sensing patches on their helmets during 12 games, 27 full-pad practices, 29 half-pad practices, and 10 helmet-only practices, for a total of 890 athletic exposures, which are defined as each instance of an athlete participating in a practice or a game. They sought to determine how many head impacts players endured during each type of activity, and whether the impacts were more severe in certain activities than others.

Unsurprisingly, football players sustained the highest number of head impacts during games, followed by full-pad practices, half-pad practices, and helmet-only practices, respectively. Whereas players only endured a mean of 2.3 head impacts during helmet-only practices, they had a mean of 16.8 in full-pad practices and 24.2 in games. In addition, the severity of head impacts didn't significantly differ between games, full-pad, and half-pad practices; helmet-only practices were the lone type with lower impact severity.

"The average impact severity is consistent across event types, with the exception of helmet-only practices," the authors wrote. "This finding indicates that the number of hits experienced during each event type, rather than the average severity of impacts that occur during the event, is the main driver of event type differences in impact burden per athletic exposure."

What does that mean for the future of full-contact football practices, both in college and at youth levels? Well, last summer, the NCAA and the College Athletic Trainers' Society did release guidelines recommending coaches hold no more than two full-contact practices per week. However, those recommendations aren't binding; the NCAA has no firm legislation addressing the frequency of contact practices allowed during football's regular season, postseason, or bowl season.

The NCAA's lack of hard-and-fast rules governing full-contact football practices irked Ramogi Huma, the president of the College Athletes Players Association. When the guidelines came out last summer, Huga voiced his displeasure to ESPN.com's Tom Farrey about the NCAA stopping shy of making the guidelines mandates.

The study authors hope their data will help the NCAA move toward establishing mandated full-contact practice limits.

"Unlike the proactive approach of the NFL [which has enacted practice rules to limit head injuries], the NCAA has been waiting for data to support their evolving football guidelines and regulations," said Dr. Thomas Jason Druzgal, the study's lead researcher, in a statement. "The results of our study start to provide some of that data."

In certain states, policymakers have already begun to take those steps with youth football. California, for instance, enacted a law last summer prohibiting high school and middle school football coaches from holding more than two full-contact practices per week. The Ohio High School Athletic Association's board of directors recently followed suit, limiting football teams to a maximum of 60 minutes of full-contact practices per week once the regular season begins. 

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