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The Missing Link Between Football Substitutions and Player Safety

In the firestorm that has erupted after the NCAA’s Football Rules Committee proposed banning snaps in the first 10 seconds of the play clock outside the last two minutes of each half, there is almost an odd consensus being reached on one issue:

“There’s absolutely zero evidence, documented evidence, that is hazardous on the pace of play, only opinions,” [Auburn head coach Gus] Malzahn said Tuesday.

Rogers Redding, the national coordinator of officiating agreed there was no “hard data”. Now even the chair of the Football Rules Committee is questioning whether the rule is actually related to player safety.

This has lead to the accusation that safety was never the primary concern and that it was a MacGuffin with two intended purposes:

  • Distract everyone from the real purpose of the proposal, which was apparently to help Nick Saban; and
  • Sneak the rule in during an off-year in football’s two-year rule change cycle.

The problem with jumping from “no conclusive data” to “no evidence at all, this is a scam” is that there is a huge hole in the record behind this proposal and the NCAA has hinted something may be there.

Two sentences in the press release announcing the proposed substitution rule reveal that someone other than self-interested football coaches may have looked into the pace of football games and possible injuries:

Research indicated that teams with fast-paced, no-huddle offenses rarely snap the ball with 30 seconds or more on the play clock. This rules proposal also aligns with a request from the Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports that sport rules committees review substitution rules in regards to player safety.

The first sentence indicates that someone researched pace of play, specifically snaps very early in the play clock. To reach that conclusion, you can probably assume whoever did this research also has data on total plays per game, the number of plays during specific periods like the last two minutes of the half, and what the overall impact on number of plays per game might be. The data might also answer questions (but we cannot assume it does) about how often defenses have the opportunity to substitute, how long it takes, and how many more opportunities the proposed rule would allow per game.

The Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sport is an association-wide committee with the following roster:

  • Four team physicians including one orthopedic surgeon;
  • Three athletic trainers;
  • Four FARs including an exercise science professor;
  • Three student-athletes;
  • Four other administrators from outside Division I, one of whom is also a coach.

The problem with analyzing CSMAS’s request is that the NCAA has not published the report of the committee’s meeting on December 12–14, 2013. The NCAA has the reports from the three previous meetings of CSMAS. Only once in those three reports, stretching back to June 2012, does CSMAS mention substitutions. It occurred in July 2013 as part of a discussion about concussion issues:

The committee supported that all sports that do not have free substitutions during competition (e.g., baseball, volleyball) consider modifying rules to allow an athlete with a possible concussion to be removed from play and evaluated without impacting the substitution rules.

In addition, the NCAA does not publish the reports or agendas of the sport rules committees. So all we know is that someone researched when teams snap the ball during the play clock and that CSMAS asked sports to look at substitution rules at least once in July 2013. Reality is likely somewhere between the extremes that CSMAS has very good scientific data and conclusions supporting the substitution proposal and it just has not been released yet or anti-hurry up coaches took some rough numbers about the pace of football games and a request not directed at football and blew it up into a safety issue for personal gain.

At this point the most interesting thing about the debate over the substitution proposal is no longer the proposal itself. It may pass this year, it may pass next year, it may never pass at all. More worrying are the long-term implications. From Allen Kenney of Blatant Homerism:

In this case, however, you’ve got the issue of player safety being batted around like a political football. I’d hope that we could at least count on the people in charge to put that above this pathetic obsession with rigging the game.

Even more than that, though, I hope we don’t reach a point where we’re so jaded by all these machinations that it gums up the capacity to implement reforms that do promote player safety in a meaningful way. Making college athletics safer when possible should be an end in and of itself, not a means to winning more games.

This episode suggests that ship may have sailed.

The substitution proposal combined with last year’s targeting rule mark the beginning of football’s attempt to reform itself in the wake of the revelation that the sport might be inherently too dangerous. The substitution proposal is far from the last we’ll hear and it will look like a tweak compared to some of the things which may have to be considered by the NCAA and/or NFL.

If you believe football will have to make changes to remain the dominant spectator sport in the country, that almost necessarily includes a belief that football needs to make those change based on something less than absolute, unchallenged scientific proof. It is hard to see the sport keeping that position in the face of headlines like “American Medical Association Urges Parents to Keep Children Away From Football”. It is even harder to see a sport with the history and tradition of football making the necessary reforms that quickly in the face of such a threat.

At some point then football will need to make significant reforms based on “some evidence” rather than scientific consensus or correlation rather than causation. That connection might be tenuous as the possible connection between the substitution proposal and CTE: many subconcussive impacts might lead to CTE, cutting the number of plays by reducing the pace of the game cuts subconcussive impacts. Some scientific evidence follows common sense to a logical conclusion that might not yet be backed by scientific study.

It also seems that net effect of the reforms to football will be to favor one style or way the game is played over the others. Otherwise the game will be neutered, a lesser version of its current self. Football may end up an even faster, more flowing game like sevens rugby, basketball on grass. Maybe it gets even slower and more strategic, like baseball with pads. Perhaps, like many forms of “football” before American football, the codes split resulting in two different, competing sports.

Already you can see how coaches and administrators can throw a wrench in this process by demanding more proof and questioning motives. This time it was the hurry-up proponents. The next time it might be a weight limit that draws the wrath of coaches who favor power running games and big, physical defenses.

If change is inevitable, then ideally the sport of football would come together at all levels and decide, sooner rather than latter, what that change should look like, and then take the safety part of reform out of hands of coaches and administrators and put it in the hands of medical professionals. Otherwise this proposal suggests we are going to see a lot of the pendulum swinging back and forth with everyone getting a turn at playing both the progressive reformer and the obstinate reactionary.

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