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Study argues that limiting live-contact during practices could be worse

While the NFL has already implemented limited live-contact during practices (especially during the offseason), college and high school could be following suit. But does that actually hurt players more?

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Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

One of the many changes that occurred after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA President DeMaurice Smith grasped hands in a show of unification after reaching a new collective bargaining agreement, were that significant steps were taken that dramatically decreased the number of live-contact practices that were allowed.

Per Article 24, Section 1 of the CBA:

Teams are restricted to 14 padded practices for the entire regular season, with 11 required during the first 11 weeks and only a maximum one per week. The final three sessions must be held throughout the final six weeks; however one of those weeks may allow for two padded practices during one week. Gone are the two-a-day training camp sessions, replaced by one full-padded practice followed by a walk-through; players are also not allowed on the field for more than four hours total.

The prevailing thought is that limiting contact during practices lowers the risk of injuries during practice, despite three major contributors for the Cincinnati Bengals suffering season-ending injuries during the season last year from Thomas Howard (knee), Mohamed Sanu (wide receiver) and Mike Nugent (calf).

This has characteristically established, or trend-set, a trend among college and high school organizations, looking to implement something similar, especially during the offseason. Currently the NCAA stands in contrast with the NFL, allowing 15 spring practices with live contact during 12 and live tackling during over half.

The Pac-12 is formally establishing guidelines that would limit contact during offseason practices with details expected to be announced in July.

"In our discussions it became clear this is a topic our coaches have focused on, the health and well-being of their student-athletes," Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said this week. "They've self-imposed (restrictions on hitting) already. … There's a high degree of awareness about it and a deep commitment to do what we can collectively. It's a high priority."

The Sports Legacy Institute, which promotes concussion awareness and prevention, is aiming to apply a more athlete-friendly policy in high school during the offseason.

"That's stands in stark contrast to what we understand about the developing brain being more vulnerable than the adult brain," said co-founder Chris Nowinski. "And in a world where the NFL players are better protected than the teenagers, we have a problem and we should correct it.''

Nowinksi was joined by former New Orleans guard Kyle Turley, New England Patriots fullback Kevin Turner and Indianapolis Colts quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.

"The only reason this isn't in place in high school is because high school athletes don't have an opportunity to negotiate," said Hasselbeck in February. "They don't have anyone in their corner with any power."

Ironically, less contact doesn't really help, concludes a study released by UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh, writes Everett Cook with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The researchers studied 468 male youth football players from 18 teams in Western Pennsylvania during the 2011 season and witnessed more than 11,000 athletic exposures, including practices and games. In the first-ever large-scale study completed specifically on youth concussions in football, the researchers recorded 20 medically diagnosed concussions throughout the season, a number close to the incidence rate of high school and collegiate athletes.


The big conclusion gleaned from the data was that limiting contact in practice, which Pop Warner did for the first time last season, is a mistake. Two of the main researchers, Michael Collins and Anthony Kontos, both Ph.D.s, think this limited practice time could actually have negative effects, because it gives kids less time to learn how to properly tackle.

"Limiting contact at practice in Pop Warner is short-sighted, because practice is an opportunity to teach proper technique, for kids to learn how to do this the right way," said Mr. Collins, who is also the executive and clinical director of the UPMC concussion program. "Eighteen thousand concussion patients visit the clinic every year, but the worst cases I see are kids who on Aug. 15, they decided to go out for football without ever learning the sport. They don't know how to tackle or play, and they get lit up. Like anything else, you need to learn your craft, and limiting practice time -- at least based upon this data -- is very shortsighted."