Reducing contact in training camp practices should help safety, but will require adjustment

Wednesday's news that the CFL and the CFLPA have agreed to restrict the numbers of contact practices during training camps seems like a positive step forward for the league. Previously, teams were allowed two practices with contact per day: now, one practice will have to be completely non-contact. That's a move in line with both what the NFL's done and the latest scientific research on football injuries, as contact during practices has long been associated with concussions (with Brain Injury Research Institute director Dr. Julian Bailes recently estimating over 60 per cent of football concussions arise from practices), and prominent concussion authority Dr. Robert Cantu told me last December the amount of hitting in practices is the first thing he'd change about football (and he'd like to change plenty). It's not just about concussions, though: full-contact practices tend to cause plenty of other injuries, so this move should help keep the league's teams healthier heading into the season. However, it will require coaches to adapt their plans, and that may not be easy.

Given how critical of an issue head injury prevention is for the CFL, this move makes a good deal of sense. Much of the recent research on concussions has dealt with practices, and full-contact practices are particularly concerning from a subconcussive trauma standpoint; even collisions that don't cause a diagnosed concussion can be extremely harmful over time, and traditional football practices involve plenty of repetitive collisions. Of course, there are plenty of reasons beyond head injuries to reduce the amount of full-contact practices, as the injury tolls from hitting constantly would seem to negate the benefits of extra time seeing how players perform with contact, and many coaches in the college and professional ranks are already realizing that and moving to practice plans with less contact. Bringing this in as a league-mandated policy for training camp is a good step, though: some teams likely would have gone to less contact in camp without a push from the CFL office, but making a universal rule levels the playing field and should improve safety league-wide.

What's interesting is that this was apparently brought up at the request of the players' association. The CFLPA has been present for some of the efforts to reduce concussions, and the players have even driven the discussion at times, but a lot of the efforts to change the game have come from the league's side rather than the players'. That's not the case with this one. From the CFL release:

Players asked for the change in a recent meeting with the Commissioner’s office, who then consulted CFL team presidents as well as head coaches, who supported the change.

“This change is another step toward ensuring the long term health and safety of our members,” said Mike Morreale, President of the CFLPA. “We are pleased that the League has taken this action and that the move is supported across all levels of the CFL. “

“This change required cooperation from all sides, as it is being made outside of the negotiation of a new collective agreement,” said Kevin McDonald, Vice-President of Football Operations for the CFL. “The responsiveness shown by the Commissioner, and the support expressed by our teams and coaches, speaks to a commitment to players’ health and safety, one we share with the players’ association.”

It says something very positive about the relationship between the league and its players that a change like this can be brought up, discussed and approved outside of the framework of CBA negotiations, and that's perhaps another reason why current and former CFL players have been more conciliatory towards the league on concussions than their NFL brethren. It's also good to see the players taking leadership on a safety issue. Really, though, this makes sense all around, as this is a move that should help both the league and the players: less contact in practices means less injuries, which works for the players but also should allow teams to field healthier rosters, thus producing a better on-field product. The thinking was already starting to swing this way amongst coaches, too; as Lowell Ullrich of The Province writes, the B.C. Lions were already moving to less contact in camps, and other teams were probably going the same way. Still, a change like this will require coaches to adjust their plans for training camp practices and player evaluation, and that may not be simple. On the whole, though, this looks like a strong move by the league and the players' association, and one that should work out well all around once coaches and teams adapt to it.