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Pac-12 already ahead of the concussion safety curve

The NCAA recently released a new set of concussion guidelines that recommend limitations on the number of contact practices that football teams can conduct. The practice guidelines set forth are very similar to regulations adopted by the Pac-12 conference back in 2013.

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

On July 7th, the NCAA released a new set of concussion guidelines aimed towards improving the ways that concussions are prevented and handled. The guidelines are an attempt by the NCAA to move past the current criticism and litigation directed towards it over how concussions were prevented and dealt with in the past. Part of the new guidelines include recommended limitations on the number of contact practices football teams are allowed to conduct. Pac-12 schools are already ahead of the rest of the NCAA in restricting contact practices. In 2013, the Pac-12 conference joined the Ivy League as the only two conferences that have adopted actual legislation limiting contact practices throughout the year.

The logic of restricting the number of contact football practices to minimize concussions is pretty straightforward; the fewer times players hit one another, the less the likelihood of sustaining a head injury. That's an easily accepted hypothesis. And with what is now known about the seriousness of concussions compared to the past, using common sense to minimize the possibility of long-term damage being sustained to college athletes should be a high priority with NCAA member institutions.

The NCAA is currently under litigation filed against it by former athletes over the treatment of concussions sustained in the past. Earlier in the year, a panel of judges consolidated these lawsuits into a single case that is pending in a federal court in the Northern District of Illinois. Sources indicate that the NCAA is seeking settlement in the case to have the matter put behind them.

The NCAA has argued that schools should be in charge of protecting athletes and overseeing the treatment of concussions. Its only current requirement is that schools report their concussion management procedures. But as CBS Sports' Jon Solomon reports, enforcement of this rule has been weak. Now Congress and the NCAA are trying to mandate that schools make their concussion management procedures public by posting them online.

The biggest critic of the NCAA's handling of concussion issues is the National College Players' Association headed by former UCLA football player Ramogi Huga. Huga finds the new NCAA guidelines to be unsatisfactory since they are only guidelines and not enforceable regulation. As a former football player, Huga also questions the restriction of contact practices noting that they do not include "thud drills" where players hit one another and wrap up without actual tackling. Under current definitions, a contact practice involves players being tacked to the ground and/or full speed blocking.

The recommended limitations on contact practices  recently released by the NCAA are as follows:

Preseason

No more than four contact practices per week, with a maximum of twelve before season

Season

No more than two contact practices per week

Spring

Eight of 15 practices can be contact

The Pac-12's self-imposed regulations are:

Preseason

Only one contact practice in a two-a-day practice schedule

Season

No more than two contact practices per week

Spring

Eight total contact practices with no more than two per week

The precise language of the Pac-12's regulations can be read here. Pac-12 regulations do not cover thud drills. The willingness of the Pac-12 to set actual regulations rather than guidelines should be applauded. There certainly can be debate as to whether the restrictions set forth by the Pac-12 conference go far enough. Regardless, it is an important step in the right direction.

The NCAA is going as far as to work with the Department of Defense to build a $30 million dollar database tracking concussion histories. Yet it does not seem to want the liability of overseeing all matters related to concussions. The issue of athlete concussions is one of many the NCAA is currently facing over the treatment and compensation of student-athletes. The organization's inability or unwillingness to address these issues and make meaningful reform has resulted in conferences, individual schools, and even Congress seeking to implement change.

Of all conferences, the Pac-12 has been at the forefront in pushing for reform from the current governance structure of the NCAA. The Pac-12 presidents sent a letter to the presidents of the other four major conferences with a ten-point outline that redefines the conditions and treatment of amateur athletes in May of this year. The letter was aimed to catalyze an ongoing initiative by major conference schools for greater autonomy from NCAA governance. I plan on addressing the implications of major conference autonomy in a post later in the week. For now, the issue of concussion safety stands as one of many in which the NCAA is resisting full-blown reform. While it is possible that many institutions will conform to the new guidelines issued by the NCAA, Pac-12 schools are leading the way with established rules restricting contact football practices.