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NCAA Could Improve Player Safety With Two Rules

The NCAA wants rule changes to protect players? OK. The one it just proposed isn't a good one. Let's improve on this.

Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

The NCAA announced a proposal yesterday to require at least 10 seconds between football plays. The idea is that this will increase player safety:

"This rules change is being made to enhance student-athlete safety by guaranteeing a small window for both teams to substitute," said Calhoun. "As the average number of plays per game has increased, this issue has been discussed with greater frequency by the committee in recent years and we felt like it was time to act in the interests of protecting our student-athletes."

Missing from the NCAA's explanation here is what, precisely, will be safer about football with this new substitution rule. What specific injuries will we see less of with this required substitution period?

I covered this topic some back in July after Nick Saban and Bret Bielema voiced concerns about hurry up offenses and player safety at SEC Media Days. I will not rehash the thing here, but their line of thinking leads to far more rules than just one about substitution periods. It also leads to eliminating games with lower divisions, revoking freshman eligibility again, and fining coaches who don't teach proper tackling technique.

I will expand on part of that post here, though. You want to enact rules to enhance player safety, NCAA? I'm down. Let's actually think this through and propose rules that make sense.

Rule 1: Further restrict hitting in practice

The "hurry up is dangerous" line of thinking rests on several arguments, but I will isolate two here. First, increasing the number of plays increases the opportunities for injuries. Second, increasing the number of plays specifically increases the head trauma that we're trying to cut down upon.

Football contact doesn't just happen in games. It happens a lot in practice too. Some conferences have chosen to cut down the amount of hitting allowed to below the NCAA's benchmark. There is no reason why the NCAA couldn't follow their lead.

Some amount of contact has to happen outside of games, as players do need to practice the proper way to play the game. That said, it is a good idea to keep full contact to a minimum. Sub-concussive hits—those not strong enough to cause a full-on concussion but that still rattle the brain—are both dangerous and routine. Merely trying to eradicate kill shots through the targeting rule isn't enough to protect players' brains. Reducing sub-concussive hits has to be a part of the package too.

Last year, Rod Gilmore put out some recommendations on how to reduce the amount of permissible contact in spring practice. It sounds like a good start to me. The NCAA should consider those ideas, and it should talk to the conferences that have cut back on hitting on how things have gone so far.

Rule 2: Impose a weight limit

Large forces in hits cause concussions and sub-concussive brain trauma. Make the forces in football lesser, and we should see a reduction of both of those. We might also see a reduction of some other kinds of injuries, as bodies will be under less stress.

One of the first things you learn in any physics class is that force equals mass times acceleration. It's not really possible to impose rules against the acceleration part—do you plan to tell players to run slower than what they're capable of?—but we can impose limits on mass.

Besides, human beings shouldn't be as big as football linemen are. The CDC did a study of NFL players in 1994 and found that linemen "had a 52% greater risk of dying from heart disease than the general population, and three times the risk of dying from heart disease than other football players". It also noted that "[p]layers in the largest body size category, 64% of all linemen, had a 6 times greater risk of heart disease than those of normal size".

More recent research isn't any more cheery. A study by the Scripps Howard News Service in 2006 found that the heaviest players are twice as likely to die before age 50 than smaller players are. A government study released in 2012 confirmed the 1994 study's findings on increased heart disease among the largest players (i.e. linemen). And, as the years go by, linemen on all levels have only gotten bigger.

ESPN's article about the 2006 Scripps Howard study quoted Penn State professor of health policy and sport science Charles Yesalis as being in favor of a lineman weight limit. He proposed 275 pounds as the cap. I have not seen another specific proposal like that one, though the New York Times noted in 2011 that "some medical experts have called for weight limits on players". I am not a nutritionist or physiologist, so I can't tell you what the right number would be.

It's true that if the NCAA imposed a weight limit, it wouldn't do much for players who balloon up to grotesque proportions in the NFL. Most players go pro in something other than sports, as the NCAA commercials will tell you, so a weight limit could do a lot of good for most linemen. And again, reducing players' weights will reduce the forces that knock brains around as players bash each other around on the lines.

If the committee is truly concerned that it's dangerous not to allow time for substitutions, there is a better way forward here than this proposed mandatory 10-second waiting period. The NCAA could make a rule requiring time for substitutions before referees set the ball after first downs. That way, defenses can sub players in and out at least every four plays. We also wouldn't have to worry about end-of-half scenarios where the offense is watching the play clock tick down under 30 when every second is precious.

This proposed rule won't pass, so it's not worth worrying about. Player safety is always a valid concern, though. If the NCAA really wants to help players, reducing hitting outside of games and putting a weight limit on linemen would do more for them than mucking around with clock rules will.