College football has adopted thoughtful safety measures during the last five years, banishing two-a-day practices and altering kickoff rules among them. New medical research makes a persuasive case for additional reform.
A study published last week in JAMA Neurology found that 72% of concussions diagnosed in six Division I football programs from 2015-19 occurred during practice. Moreover, 48.5% of the concussions (33 of 68) transpired during preseason camp.
Co-authored by Virginia Tech engineering professor Stefan Duma, the study, funded by the NCAA and Department of Defense through the Care Consortium, tracked more than 650 players at Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Army, Air Force and UCLA. Each wore helmets outfitted with sensors, which recorded more than 525,000 head impacts.
Duma directs Virginia Tech’s Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science and has been at the forefront of concussion research for nearly 20 years. He was not surprised at the study’s findings.
“All sports are basically full of anecdotal stories,” he said. “But this, for the first time really, gives you specific data to make specific decisions with, and that’s really invaluable. …
“We’ve seen these trends at other levels. It’s a complex story, but the reality is, there’s a lot of head-impact exposure in the preseason and in the early practices. And at the college level, the NCAA level, I think the primary take-home from this paper is, this is where the opportunity is. This is where we really need to look at making changes to reduce risk.”
The NCAA’s prohibition of two-a-days, a grueling rite of passage for generations, began in 2017, and the following year the association trimmed the maximum number of preseason practices from 29 to 25. Those 25 sessions can be spread over 29 days.
Duma believes college football needs to reconsider not only the 25 practices but also how they are scripted.
“The very basic part of this is limiting exposure,” he said, “and the head injuries and the head-impact exposures are directly correlated with how many practices you have. … All the research really coalesces around that one simple thing, that it’s mostly about contact practices, and those are what you have to watch the most.”
The NFL and its players’ union understand. Their collective bargaining agreement limits padded practices, and league injury data shows training camp and regular-season practices accounted for only 17.4% (39 of 224) diagnosed concussions in 2019.
About a decade ago, Duma studied Pop Warner players aged 9-11 and concluded that 70% of concussions occurred during practices. Pop Warner reformed its practice standards and halved head injuries, according to Duma.
“My guess is you’re going to see a reduction in the contact during [college football’s] preseason,” Duma said, “and I think that will be OK.”
OK, indeed. With advances in conditioning, nutrition and sleep science, college athletes are essentially in shape year-round. They don’t need as extended a training camp to prepare for a season.
The NCAA Division I Football Oversight Committee discussed this latest concussion research at its meeting last Thursday and will continue exploring the topic, said Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock, a member of that panel.
Hokies coach Justin Fuente is attuned to the issue, has met with Duma many times and advocates another change to training camp.
“I’d like to see us expand the time of training camp, give us more flexibility with how we practice and give us more time to give our kids time off,” Fuente said. “If we’re going to practice 25 times before the first game, I want more than 29 days to get those 25 practices in. I want to spread them out, because I believe — I’m not a doctor — but I believe that contributes to the problem, and I think we can do this in a much safer manner.”
Virginia Tech and North Carolina are ACC and national leaders in concussion research and activism. UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz is a neuroscientist and a co-director of the university’s Matthew Gfeller Sports-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center.
Gfeller died from a helmet-to-helmet collision in his first varsity football game at R.J. Reynolds High in Winston-Salem, N.C., in 2008. Three years later, Duma and his team of Virginia Tech researchers began rating helmets for safety.
“I have worked at other places that had less information [about concussions], and it wasn’t nearly as smooth,” Fuente said. “Everybody involved in the chain of command wasn’t nearly as educated with facts as we are. That part of it makes this a much better, safer and easier place to work because of the knowledge base that we have here. ...
“One of the most important decisions a coach makes is how much to practice, how much to tackle, how much contact do we need, because, obviously, we have a vested interest in getting our players to the field healthy as well. We want our guys fresh and feeling good, but also competent to play the game, so we need to continue to evaluate what we’re doing. I think it is good that we are collecting that data and not poking in the dark, but let’s digest that information and see how we can help this be a safer game.”