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NFL considers rules changes to combat concussions

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 20, 2010; D09

Leaders of the NFL and the players' union are studying the possibilities of curtailing teams' offseason practices and placing restrictions on the amount of hitting allowed between players during training camp and the regular season, officials said.

The measures would be aimed at curbing the rate and severity of concussions suffered by players and could be in place by next season. Thom Mayer, the medical director of the NFL Players Association, said he could foresee a reduction by 20 to 25 percent in the number of practices with collisions between players being permitted.

"Anything less, and you might not make enough of a difference," Mayer said.

The measures are to be discussed by members of the NFL competition committee and union representatives at the NFL scouting combine next week in Indianapolis.

"The doctors will have input. The players will have input," said Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, co-chairman of the competition committee.

Other possible rules changes include a ban on helmet-to-helmet hits on all ballcarriers, in addition to the existing bans on such hits on quarterbacks and receivers; roster exemptions for players recovering from concussions; and the elimination of the three-point stance used by players at the line of scrimmage.

A decision on eliminating the three-point stance, as mentioned by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell during a televised interview on CBS on Super Bowl Sunday, is unlikely this offseason, league and union officials said.

It is uncertain how quickly the league would act on other possible rules modifications.

"A lot of these issues will be part of our long-range discussions," McKay said in a telephone interview. "In the short term, I think our focus will be to extend the protections we have for defenseless players, and emphasize the rules we have. In the bigger picture, some of those discussions take longer."

Mayer said he thinks significant rule changes could be made in time for next season. "I think all of them, except for the three-point stance, could be implemented right away," Mayer said.

The league is studying the practice-related issues through discussions with the union and via the work of the NFL's medical committees and a coaches' committee headed by former coach and broadcaster John Madden.

One official said it's possible but not certain that practice-related measures will be enacted by Goodell himself this offseason. Goodell already modified concussion-related procedures during the just-completed NFL season, enacting measures that included barring a player who demonstrates any concussion-related symptoms from re-entering a game or practice and requiring a player who suffers a concussion to be cleared by an independent neurologist before practicing or playing in a game again.

The measures were enacted after a congressional hearing in late October about the rate and severity of concussions being suffered by players and the possible link between concussions and memory-related disease later in life.

The proposed restriction on hitting in some practices during training camp and the season possibly could lead to players not wearing helmets in some non-contact practices.

"It's not just the number of workouts. It's the number of full-contact workouts," Mayer said. "If you reduce the frequency of the contact, you'll have a much better chance of reducing the frequency and severity of concussions. It's a start. It's a good start."

One concern that has been raised about no-helmet practices, however, is the possibility that they could produce an increase in other injuries, including facial lacerations and injuries to players' eyes, teeth and jaws, officials said.

"There is no singular magic bullet that's going to make the game safer," said George Atallah, the union's assistant executive director of external affairs. "There needs to be better rules, better equipment, better training, better coaching, better independent medical treatment. All of that needs to be taken together."

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