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Voluntary Practices Targeted in Proposal


Starting with a measure one committee member has labeled a baby step, the NCAA is exploring added safety policies in an effort to avoid the rash of football deaths that rocked the sport last year. The NCAA board of directors will vote today on a one-year pilot proposal that will allow incoming freshman football players who have signed a letter of intent this year to participate in supervised voluntary summer conditioning workouts with returning players.

"This initiative has certainly been pushed by those concerns, no question," said Grant Teaff, the former Baylor coach who serves as executive director of the American Football Coaches Assn. "I think we're moving toward complete supervision of all summer workouts. We want to cover as much as we can humanly possibly look at on this issue."

Of the 17 football players who died last year, three played for Division I teams. Florida State freshman linebacker DeVaughn Darling, Florida freshman running back Eraste Autin and Northwestern senior safety Rashidi Wheeler all died during off-season conditioning drills.

Autin's situation was the only one specific to the NCAA proposal. He is believed to have suffered from heatstroke during a voluntary practice July 19. Current rules forbid incoming freshmen from practicing with returning players during voluntary summer drills. The returning players' practice is conducted by the team's strength and conditioning coach. The coach can design specific workouts for the returning players, but he is restricted to inspecting the freshman workouts for safety purposes only.

The proposal would allow all the players to train with the strength and conditioning coach. The NCAA is also encouraging that the unified workouts include the presence of a qualified assistant, typically a trainer, who possesses "the unchallengeable authority to cancel or modify the workout ... as appropriate."

"There are lots of issues to address regarding safeguards for our student-athletes and not one simple answer," said Dennis Poppe, the NCAA senior director for football and baseball. "Here, we're looking at helping a kid adequately acclimate himself for the rigors of football practice."

In typical NCAA style, the proposal was forwarded through a deliberate process that included input from several committees, including football issues, competitive safeguards, student-athletes and football study oversight.

Should it win approval, the pilot program will take effect along with the NCAA's management council's endorsement of an educational campaign intended to heighten awareness of off-season conditioning issues, such as the impact of nutritional supplements, existing medical conditions and hydration. Linda Will, the mother of Northwestern's Wheeler, a La Verne Damien High graduate from Ontario, has advocated additional measures. Will wants practice field sidelines equipped with oxygen tanks, an operable telephone to reach emergency personnel if necessary and a reasonable number of school staff members who are CPR-trained. Will is suing Northwestern for the wrongful death of her son, an asthmatic who collapsed while running conditioning sprints in August.

Said Michael Aguirre, a former wide receiver at Arizona State who is a member of the Division I student-athlete advisory committee: "I've been asked about making this more of a mandate. For now, we need to see what our member schools come up with. We need a plan in place that will maximize safety and preparation for the season.

"Anytime we are not providing proper care and safety to our athletes, we need to look at ways to ensure it won't happen again."

Aguirre said the management council's campaign includes a recommendation for all universities to arrange a meeting before summer workouts that will include the chancellor/president, the head football coach, a few football players, a team physician and trainer and a risk-management official to discuss a comprehensive safety plan.

Additionally, Poppe said the NCAA will push its member schools to increase their emphasis on educating players about the dangers of supplements and heat-related illnesses. Laronica Conway, the public information coordinator for the NCAA, said athletes need to adopt a basic philosophy before using supplements: "If you're unsure of what you're taking, go ask the trainer." Wheeler and Darling had the NCAA-banned supplement ephedrine in their system when they died.

Personal accountability is also being stressed in the campaign. Poppe said the attitude of playing hurt and pushing the body to the brink of exhaustion is inherent to the game.

"We need the student-athlete to commit to the idea that if he doesn't feel well, it's OK to back off," Aguirre said. "I know that voluntary workouts have a mandatory nature to them. Even when we're told we don't have to work out, we think, 'I've got to, because UCLA is doing it, Stanford is doing it, and I don't want to get behind.' That kind of thinking is difficult to enforce."

Said Teaff: "The good thing is a lot of people are taking a look at this. This is the start of a long and winding road, but one we need to trot."

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