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Effect of the 2018 NCAA Kickoff Rule Change on Concussion Rates in Collegiate Football: Results From a Division 1 Conference.

BACKGROUND: Kickoff plays in American football are associated with an increased risk of concussion compared with other play types. In 2018, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Football Rules Committee altered the kickoff rules so a fair catch inside the 25-yard line results in a touchback, with the ensuing drive starting on the 25-yard line. The intention was to decrease the number of kickoff returns with a corresponding decrease in the rate of concussions on kickoff plays.

PURPOSE: To determine whether the 2018 rule changes had the intended effects in an NCAA Division 1 Conference.

STUDY DESIGN: Cohort study; Level of evidence, 3.

METHODS: The study population included football athletes in the NCAA Pacific-12 (Pac-12) Conference. Data on the total number of plays, punts, kickoffs, touchbacks, and fair catches were obtained for all in-conference games from the 2016 to 2021 seasons. The number of game concussions and the play type were provided by each conference institution. Incidence of concussions occurring during kickoff plays before (2016-2017) and after (2018-2021) the rule change were compared with a difference-in-difference analysis using Poisson general linear models.

RESULTS: There were 242 concussions in 108,774 total plays in the study period, with an overall concussion rate of 2.2 per 1000 plays. The percentage of touchbacks increased significantly from 45% to 51% ( P < .001) and the percentage of fair catches increased from 1% to 7% ( P < .001) from before to after the rule change. Kickoffs accounted for 6% of plays both before and after the rule change and 11% of concussions before and 14% after the change. The mean annual concussion rate (per 1000 plays) on kickoffs was 3.42 before and 5.31 after the rule change (rate difference: 1.89; 95% confidence interval, -1.22 to 5.01).

CONCLUSION: Touchbacks and fair catches increased after the kickoff rule change, but there was not a corresponding decrease in concussions during kickoff plays as anticipated. Concussions occurring during other football plays remained stable.

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