Media attention on brain injuries in football has waned in the last few years. That observation doesn’t mean the sport is any safer for the athletes now. But it’s great to see the NCAA still working to try to protect the safety and brain health of the players as much as they can without dramatically altering the game itself. I discussed the latest NCAA proposal to decrease contact in the college football preseason in my latest newspaper column.

The Football Oversight Committee recommends several changes to limit contact in the college football preseason

Big changes could be coming to the college football preseason. I believe they could make the sport safer without reducing the quality of the games.

The Football Oversight Committee (FOC) will ask the NCAA Division I Council to adopt the following changes: cut the number of contact practices from 21 to 18, restrict days in full-pads to nine, require seven helmet-only days, prevent more than two consecutive full-contact practices, limit full contact to no more than 75 minutes in any practice, and limit a team to two scrimmages per camp.

Some football tackling drills cause unnecessary head impacts

CARE Consortium study shows concussions are more common in the preseason and during practices

The recommendations come on the heels of a study from the Concussion Assessment, Research and Education Consortium released in February. Analyzing data from six Division I football programs from 2015 to 2019, researchers determined that almost half of the concussions and two-thirds of head impact exposure occurred during preseason training, even though the preseason makes up only one-fifth of the season. Additionally, they found that a large majority of concussions and head impacts occurred in practice, not during games.

Mark Harlan, the athletic director at the University of Utah, led the subcommittee that developed the recommendations. In an NCAA press release about the proposal, he noted, “The challenge in creating this model was to balance the need for a reduction in contact with preparing student-athletes properly to play a football season.”

These proposed changes mark the next steps in the NCAA’s attempts to make the sport safer for the athletes. In 2017, the NCAA banned two-a-day practices. The following year, the organization reduced the number of preseason practices from 29 to 25.

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Eliminating certain tackling drills are important to limit head impacts

Another proposed change involves prohibiting drills that create unnecessary contact. For example, the Oklahoma drill involves an offensive and defensive lineman squaring off as a ball-carrier attempts to run past the defender while staying within a narrow area marked by two blocking pads. The King of the Circle drill, also known as the Bull in the Ring, involves two players competing to either take each other to the ground or push each other out of a circle. 

The NFL banned the Oklahoma and King of the Circle/Bull in the Ring drills in 2019. Most college coaches claim to have eliminated these drills years ago, even without rules banning them.

Two studies published in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Pediatrics in 2016 and 2017 showed the potential dangers of these tackling drills for youth football players. When looking at head impact exposure, the King of the Circle and Oklahoma drills had among the highest impact rates of any type of drill, and higher impacts than those that occur during games. The researchers argue that youth football practices should not include these types of drills.

Criticisms of efforts to limit contact, especially tackling

Over the years, I’ve heard criticisms of efforts to decrease contact in the preseason and eliminate these tackling drills. At the youth and high school levels, coaches often argue they need more contact and more tackling drills to teach proper tackling technique. The logic goes that if kids do less tackling in the preseason and practice, the worse their tackling will be during games, and the greater the chances of injury. I disagree. You can teach kids proper tackling without the Oklahoma and King of the Circle drills.

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These proposed changes are a step in the right direction

The committee did reject a proposal from the SEC to expand preseason camp by six days. According to Sports Illustrated, the SEC asked the committee to allow teams to hold 25 practices over 35 days to provide more days off between full-contact practices. I would have preferred the SEC’s schedule over the one recommended by the FOC. Still, the changes are a step in the right direction.

These new policies will now be reviewed by the schools themselves. Depending on feedback from those schools, the FOC will seek approval for these changes at a meeting of the Division I Council on May 19. If approved, the rules will be in place when teams start practice in August. 

I applaud the NCAA for looking to make the sport a little safer. I hope the changes are approved. I hope these ideas filter down to the high school and youth levels too.

Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the May 15, 2021 issue of The Post and Courier.