On Monday the NCAA released a new set of guidelines on concussion safety that recommends a reduction in the number of contact practices football teams can hold during the preseason, season, and spring. The guidelines are not a binding set of legislation at this point, but there is a possibility they could be in the future. If such measures are enacted upon, WSU and other Pac-12 schools would be less impacted having already established restrictions on contact practices.
In recent years, the NCAA has come under a growing amount of scrutiny for how athletes with concussions have been handled over the course of several decades. This scrutiny came to involve close to a dozen lawsuits by former athletes. A ruling earlier this year consolidated those lawsuits into a single lawsuit in a federal court in Illinois. Developments in the current case indicate that the NCAA is seeking a settlement to have the litigation put behind it.
The historical legal position of the NCAA has been that individual schools are responsible for the safety and protection of their athletes. The newly released guidelines are part of a larger NCAA initiative to move forward and disassociate with the way concussions have been managed in the past. Part of this initiative includes a partnership with the Department of Defense to compile a $30 million database that tracks the concussion history of athletes.
Jon Solomon of CBS Sports gives a detailed breakdown the new proposed guidelines. According to Solomon, the recommended contact practice restrictions are a maximum of four practices a week and twelve overall during two preseason, two contact practices a week during the season, and only eight contact practices during the spring. In addition to the reduction of contact practices, the NCAA is seeking to instill new medical guidelines that put decisions on when players can return in the hands of medical professionals and out of the hands of coaches.
The NCAA wants to see its member institutions be more transparent. Currently, the NCAA mandates that member institutions report their concussion management procedures. As Solomon reports, compliance with this regulation has been lax. Now the NCAA and members of Congress are calling for schools to visibly post their concussion management procedures and make them a matter of public record.
As with many of the attempts the NCAA makes to set the conditions of its own reform in the face of public pressure, there is outside criticism that the guidelines do not do enough. Leading the criticism of the NCAA is Ramogi Huma, the president of the National College Players Association. Huma, also a former UCLA football player, expressed disappointment that the NCAA stopped with guidelines and did not install actual legislation. He also feels that the definition of "contact" does not encompass all types of practice drills in which players are exposed to concussion hazards.
Of all major conferences, the NCAA's proposed guidelines would have the least impact on Pac-12 schools in terms of reducing contact football practices. Last year, the Pac-12 joined the Ivy League as the only other conference to establish limitations on contact football practices. The Pac-12 limits the number of contact practices in both the spring and regular season to two a week and restricts the amount of contact in preseason two-a-days. The conference's coaches played an instrumental role in setting the new restrictions.
Coaches are ultimately the ones whose actions could be modified by these guidelines. It is one thing to restrict the number of practices in a universal fashion so that all teams are subject to the same guidelines. The bigger adjustment for coaches will be losing their say of when a player is able to return. Taking the input out of coaches hands in determining when players can return could lead to players being out of action for longer periods of time and antagonisms between coaching and medical staffs.
The NCAA is facing many pressures to reform. The intensity of these pressures has already led some conferences and institutions to take steps on their own. On the conference level, there are the contact practice restrictions already adopted by Pac-12 schools and the letter of the Pac-12 presidents calling for reform among the major conferences. At the institution level, some schools, such as USC, have addressed the issue of guaranteed scholarships to assure athletes can complete their education. Of all issues, the concussion issue seems to be the one that the NCAA is most willing to address on its national level of governance, but it still isn't there yet.