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Study: Football Practices Pose Greatest Concussion Risk

Paul Steinbach

College football players sustained far more concussions in practice than they did during games, according to a study released Monday.

Published in JAMA Neurology, a peer-reviewed journal, the study found that 72 percent of the concussions medical researchers reviewed over five college football seasons happened during practice, according to The New York Times. And although preseason training accounted for about one-fifth of the time the researchers studied, they found that nearly half of the concussions occurred during that period.

“The biggest surprise was the extent of the data, not just the trend of the data,” said Michael McCrea, the study’s lead author and a professor of neurosurgery at the Medical College of Wisconsin, where he is co-director of the Center for Neurotrauma Research.

“Most people, scientists or not, are aware that there’s more full-contact activity in the preseason than in the regular season, so I’m not sure the trend of that finding is a surprise,” McCrea told the Times. “But maybe the magnitude of it.”

In an editorial also published in JAMA Neurology on Monday, two additional brain injury experts described the study’s findings as “shocking,” particularly given statistics about concussions and head impact exposure, known as H.I.E., during contractually regulated practices in the National Football League.

Professional teams may hold no more than 14 padded practices during the regular season. In the NFL’s 2019 regular season, less than 7 percent of concussions happened during practices, according to league data.

“Concussions in games are inevitable, but concussions in practice are preventable,” the experts, Dr. Robert C. Cantu and Christopher J. Nowinski, who were not authors of the McCrea-led study, wrote in their editorial. “Practices are controlled situations where coaches have almost complete authority over the H.I.E. risks taken by players.”

By the end of the 2019 season, when the study concluded after recording more than 528,000 head impacts across five seasons, 68 of the monitored players had sustained concussions. The researchers tracked players at Air Force, Army, North Carolina, U.C.L.A., Virginia Tech and Wisconsin. Spring practices were not included, McCrea said.

Crucially, researchers have found variances in head impact exposures among individual players, even among teammates playing the same position, McCrea said.

“Certain teams practice different than other teams, and certain players play different than other players,” McCrea said.

In a statement on Monday evening, Mark Emmert, the NCAA's president, said that the findings “provide new information for our members to modify rules while continuing education efforts for college athletes across the country.”

As the Times reported, the NCAA caps practice time and enforces rules around matters like transfers and recruiting, but the conferences that play football within Division I have enormous day-to-day power and set policies that can vary from one league to the next.

The association’s powerful Division I Football Oversight Committee is expected to review the results of the new study next month. Shane Lyons, the committee’s chairman and the athletic director at West Virginia, said Monday that the panel would “translate important, emerging research data into policies and recommendations that further our focus on football safety.”

“There’s shared responsibility here: on the scientists who produce the evidence, on policymakers, on institutions and coaches and players,” McCrea said. “I think we all have a responsibility.”

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