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Football Needs Skill Instruction for Safety Purposes

The way offseason workouts are handled are one of the most confusing set of rules in the NCAA manual. Not only are the total number of hours and required days off regulated, but so are the activities and number of athletes allowed. In all sports, offseason workouts are limited to eight hours per week. In most sports, those eight hours can include up to two hours per week of skill instruction. The rest must be conditioning. And before September 15 or after April 15, no more than four athletes can be involved in skill instruction at any one time.

However regimented that may sound, football is even more tightly controlled. In addition to offseason conditioning periods and required student-athlete discretionary time where even voluntary workouts are controlled, offseason skill instruction is prohibited in football. Instead of two hours per week of skill instruction, football coaches may only require two hours of film study per week during the offseason conditioning periods. This means outside of the 15 spring practices (some of which are eaten up by scrimmages and a spring game), there is no opportunity to teach technique and provide ongoing skill instruction without the pressure of a game to prepare for.

The lack of ongoing skill instruction in football presents a major challenge when trying to reduce brain injuries and in general make the game safer. Calls to reduce contact in practice are getting louder and louder. The counterargument is that tackling and contact in practice is required to teach proper technique. If football players get less opportunity to learn how to tackle, block, and receive hits in practice, more injuries, particularly catastrophic injuries, may occur during games through poor technique.

At some point, football players need to learn how to hit and be hit by an actual human being. But that does not mean that contact is required to teach technique. One way to sharpen tackling technique and have fewer full-contact practices is to allow coaches to work with players on tackling and blocking during the offseason.

The NCAA could permit football the same two hours of skill instruction that other sports have with one catch: at least one hour per week must be spent on tackling and/or blocking technique. These would be non-contact drills that focus on fundamentals of good tackling and blocking. The goal would be to refine technique and instill fundamentals so that limited contact in practice only has to translate those skills to live action, not teach tackling from the ground up.

And to get the other hour of seven-on-seven competition or other skill work, all players should have to learn tackling and blocking. Skill players have to block regularly and get often their start playing special teams. Many college players change position during their career. Quarterbacks and kickers will find themselves needing to tackle someone and likely get little or no practice doing so during a full-contact practice. It is an essential football skill that every player should have even if their position does not demand it regularly.

For football to remain viable as a major sport and recognizable as the game played today, it may require massive, even impossible changes. Compared to the decisions facing the sport in 10–20 years, this is a tiny tweak, and one which easily fit into existing NCAA rules.

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