N.C.A.A. Guidelines on Head Injuries Fall Short

Source: Editorial Board/NY Times

The National Collegiate Athletic Association, which is currently embroiled in alawsuit over its ostrichlike response to concussions, released new voluntary guidelines on Monday for concussion safety. But these won’t necessarily fix the problem.

The guidelines, which the N.C.A.A. has said were “created to generate a cultural shift within college athletics,” recommends that programs limit “live contact” practice sessions that involve tackling to the ground or full-speed blocking to two a week during the season and four a week in the preseason.

They also state that team doctors should have “unchallengeable autonomous authority” on return-to-play decisions, without interference from the coach; that universities should make their concussion management plans publicly available; that students with concussions should not return to play on the day of the accident; and that both return-to-play and return-to-academics decisions should be managed by doctors.

While these recommendations make sense, some player advocates have argued that they don’t go far enough. Ramogi Huma, the president of the National College Players Association, has said, for instance, that the N.C.A.A.’s definition of “live contact” is too narrow since it excludes various drills that may lead to head injuries.

A larger issue is that the guidelines provide no mechanism for oversight or enforcement. Experience has shown that it is dangerous to rely on individual athletic programs to police themselves. The N.C.A.A. has actually forbidden athletic activity on the day of a concussion since 2010, and yet in 2011 a football player for Frostburg State, Derek Sheely, died from head trauma sustained on the field after his coach allegedly bullied him into practicing despite the injury. Last September, The Chronicle of Higher Education released a survey of 101 college football trainers, which found that nearly half had felt pressured to return players to the field after a concussion.

The N.C.A.A. says that strict rules would have taken longer to put in place than these guidelines did. While that is true, there is nothing stopping the organization from moving to make its recommendations mandatory in the near future. As Mr. Huma has pointed out, the N.C.A.A. is quite willing to enforce all manner of petty rules that have nothing to do with safety, going after “a player selling a bowl ring or Johnny Manziel getting paid for autographs.”