Many keeping up with brain injuries in football, myself included, have considered rule changes as an unlikely solution to the huge numbers of concussions on the field, because we have assumed that decreasing the level of violence in the sport would upset many of the biggest fans.
In the real world, the NCAA has already proven us wrong. College football leagues have already undergone numerous rule changes in the name of brain health, and there are many more likely to come in the future, yet there has been pretty much zero backlash or outcry. In fact, it has worked pretty well, according to U-T San Diego and Dr. Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s recently appointed Chief Medical Officer.
The latest rule introduced by the NCAA mandates that making contact on a defenseless opposing player above the shoulders is grounds for ejection from the gain, a rule similar to the tackling regulations rumored to be considered by the NFL. We won’t know until late in the next season how well this rule works at slowing traumatic brain injury, but previous rules aimed at TBI by the NCAA have shown positive results.
“We changed the kickoff rule last year, and when you analyze injuries, there was a 50 percent reduction of concussion just from that,” Hainline told Stefanie Loh. “Just by putting the kickoff five yards closer (on the 35-yard line) and having touchbacks go five yards closer the other way, to the 25 rather than the 20-yard line.”
Another rule with good results is a requirement that all players who were hit hard enough to have their helmet knocked off to be benched for at least the next play. It allows players who were involved in big hits to be more observable by medical staff and quickly diagnosed if needed before allowing them to return to play.
Similar to the NFL, most teams are largely in control of brain injury management for their players, but that doesn’t mean any team can get away with not having a plan for diagnosing and handling TBI on the field. The league has minimum standards for schools participating which require that all players showing signs of concussion be removed from play until cleared by a physician.
However, the NCAA has traditionally maintained that it is not their responsibility to enforce concussion management plans. In the future that could change, as Hainline concedes that “personal responsibility” isn’t enough to keep players safe.
“That’s a whole new area. Enforcement has always been about amateurism issues,” Hainline said. “So one of the discussions going forward with regard to health and safety matters is ‘How do you legislate that?’ From an enforcement point of view.”