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CFL ends full-contact practices amid injury concerns: Interview with Andrew Bucholtz

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Is American football the next to eliminate full contact practices?

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104th Grey Cup Championship Game Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

As the game of football (and attendant litigation) has rapidly evolved, RBR has necessarily covered CTE more and more within these pages. Injuries and lawsuits aren’t the sexiest topic to be sure, but they do serve as the canaries in the coal mine for the sport.

Here is one big damned canary.

The Canadian Football League has taken the significant step of eliminating pads from all regular-season practices, a policy that will begin immediately and will effectively limit contact to games following the end of preseason training camp.

[CFL Commissioner] Ambrosie said the change was not aimed specifically at addressing concussions. It did come two months after a Boston-based study found chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in nearly all of the 202 brains sampled from former football players.

Of course the Commissioner is not going to say that this move was to address closed head trauma and CTE: Canada has not had its own form of the NFL concussion litigation come to a resolution. Still, on the heels of two highly-publicized studies in two months, the move is curiously-timed at the least, and partially gives lie to Ambrosie’s statement at the worst.

The ban by the CFL seems to be the predictable next step in the slow reduction (or elimination) of contact and a greater emphasis on player safety. In just the past five years, the NCAA and NFL have instituted concussion protocols; the NCAA has introduced targeting legislation; several high school associations have completely eliminated two-a-days and full contact practices; and the NCAA has recently eliminated two-a-days as well.

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To get a better idea of what was going on, and whether or not the CLF may presage a trend for the U.S., I spoke with former-Yahoo CFL editor Andrew Bucholtz:

Was the CFL actively studying suspending full contact practice? Or did this just arise from the league office?

Good question. I’m not sure of the answer. There is some research into CFL concussions: some league funded, some not. But, I’m not sure if there are any CFL-specific practice studies. To my knowledge, this was more likely a PA (Players Association) push that the league agreed to.

It’s notable that the CFL only had 17 in-season contact practices before this. That is less than one a week, after being reduced a few years back at the PA’s insistence in the league’s CBA. The PA has been pushing hard on safety, including asking for independent neurologists, extended medical coverage, etc. Maybe the league felt that this was one spot they could give in to?

Does the CFL have the concussion history that the NFL does, or are concussions on the rise now?

Very similar. There have been lots of confirmed instances of CTE, including a league-wide class action. Wrote lots on it. One piece is here, detailing the steps the league has taken regarding in-game injuries and screenings, as well as its less-than-proactive approach of partnering with the NFL.

There have been a couple of different lawsuits, a pending class action led by Kory Banks, and a separate one by a recent player, Arland Bruce III. There has been no settlements or big success for the plaintiffs so far. And the league has registered wins in the Bruce case.

Commissioner Ambrosie said the CFL’s decision was not in response to concussions in the league, but obviously he can't admit that with pending litigation. Do any of your sources have an idea if that's just a smokescreen? The CFL really didn't narrow down why fully-padded in-season practices ended so abruptly.

Yeah, I don’t think the league can admit liability. I really think this was about players pushing and league finally saying "okay, have this one." But, it’s not just concussions or CTE at play. Other injuries in contact practices are a concern for the players too. And those probably worry players more in the short term.

What has been the reaction around the league? The PA will presumably be happy, but I'm guessing owners and coaches aren't as sanguine (or are they?)

As usual: Players are happy, coaches pissed. It’s the same reaction as when the CFL cut contact practices down to one a week. There is a good story with coach reactions here:

“When you don’t practice with pads the game is different. It’s like you’re in a pillow fight. On game day you got to show up and be in the fist fight. It ain’t the same thing. The game fundamentally is going to suffer. We will not have a good product out there fundamentally.”

At play in the CFL seems to be a combination of emergent research, litigation, a well-leveraged players association, and a commissioner’s office that is unusually willing to acquiesce on player safety (or at least be proactive in mitigating future litigation.)

Those elements don’t enjoy quite so fertile a ground in the United States. However, given the notorious risk aversion of collegiate administrators and the NCAA as a body, it seems almost certain that the elimination of in-season full-contact practices may not be the next step, but is an ultimate one.

As we say so often about the future of the sport, evolve or die. If that’s the case, then CFL may have just taken a giant step on to land out of the primordial ooze of what we may soon know as “the bad ole days.”

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Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing / The Comeback, and CFL correspondent for Barnburner.ca. For nearly a decade prior, Andrew was the editor of Yahoo's CFL blog. You can check out his work above and follow his always-incisive Twitter account at @andrewbucholtz

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Will the NCAA eventually eliminate full contact practices?

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