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Student-athletes don their helmets, their mouth guards, some shoulder pads or perhaps nothing at all.

Football players ready themselves to be jostled from side-to-side up-and-down the field. Lacrosse players prepare to be body checked. And wrestlers fasten on their headgear before a match.

While many sports require athletes to wear equipment during practices and games, a Maryland task force says that is not enough. The state could be the first to limit and regulate the amount of contact allowed in high-impact high school sports practices as early as next school year, according to Edward Sparks, task force co-chair.

That is, if the Maryland Board of Education passes a slew of recommendations in May from the state's Traumatic Brain Injury/Sports-Related Concussions Task Force.

"I think the task force stepped out of [its] comfort zone," Sparks said, "and made these recommendations regarding limiting the amount of exposures, which kind of goes counter to a lot of traditional thinking in regard to practice. It'll be interesting to see how it'll be accepted."

The purpose: to limit injuries, particularly concussions, which is when a bump or blow to the head can change the way the brain typically functions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Emergency departments nationwide treat an estimated 173,285 people ages 1- to 19-years old for sports- and recreation-related traumatic brain injuries, according to a CDC report tracking numbers from 2001 to 2009.

If practice limitations are adopted, the Maryland State Department of Education will collaborate with medical, academic and athletic officials to determine what category different sports falls under: collision, contact or non-contact. Then, they'll craft individualized regulations on contact exposure for each sport, according to the task force's report. This likely won't take long, according to Sparks, who said he hopes the policies will be in place for the 2013-2014 school year.

In high-impact sports, such as football and lacrosse, the innate nature of the game is likely not going to dramatically change in a short span of time, according to Dr. Alan Faden, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, an expert in brain trauma treatment. So, instead, he'd recommend setting collision and contact practice limits.

"We're basically a gladiator civilization," he said. "And we're not going to get rid of these things, so the only question is how to protect the brain and the vulnerability of the brain at different ages."

Last fall, the Howard County Public School System became the first county in the state to officially regulate contact in football practices, according to Sparks, who also serves as the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association executive director.

And regulating doesn't mean logging less practice hours. Rather, it means limiting time scrimmaging or practicing contact drills that simulate game-like situations and replacing them with different drills, such as pushing sleds, passing the ball or conditioning, said Michael Senisi, Howard County Public Schools interim athletics coordinator.

"Concussions are big in our society today," Senisi said, "and we're trying to limit that as best as we can."

During the season, the Howard County football players have a set schedule, according to the task force's report. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, varsity athletes practice in full gear. Contact mainly occurs on Tuesday and Wednesday, Senisi said. Thursday, they wear helmets and shoulder pads only. Friday is game day, followed by a day of reviewing film, strength training and running.

In Carroll, high-impact practices are not officially regimented. Rather, football coaches self-regulate, according to Carroll County Public Schools Athletics Supervisor Jim Rodriguez.

"Prior to the season, they're obviously trying to get the kids game-ready, so there's going to be more hitting that takes place - tackling, hitting to get the young men ready to compete," he said. "But once the season starts, while we as a county do not have a limited number of, 'Oh you can only hit two days,' I don't believe any of our football coaches really let our kids hit more than two days [a week]."

And he said his position on the matter will depend on what comes down the pipeline from the state.

"I'm not sure if we need a statewide policy given that fact that most likely folks are already not doing more than that," he said. "And I think that the supervisor of athletics in the respective counties can monitor [it]."

While Maryland would likely be the first state to implement such a policy, it wouldn't be piloting the idea either.

In 2011, the National Football League limited contact exposure practices. Off-season workouts are a maximum of nine weeks long. Two consist of strength and conditioning only, three are instruction only and four consist of team activities, according to the task force's January report.

During pre-season training camps, the first day can only be comprised of physicals and meetings, and no pads or contact are allowed in the second and third day of camp. Afterward, padded practice is limited to once per day. And only 14 padded practices are permitted throughout the entire season.

The Ivy League - comprised of Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale and more - prohibited more than two contact practices per week, which is 60 percent less than the NCAA maximum, according to the task force's report based on the Ivy League Review of Concussions in Football report released in July 2011.

The next year, the league released guidelines for more sports. Rules for men's and women's lacrosse included increased emphasis on technique and having a set number of practices where stick-checking for women and body-checking practices for men are prohibited. And three hours of preseason men's and women's soccer practices will be dedicated to reviewing proper techniques for heading the ball, according to the task force's report based on an Ivy League Multi-Sport Concussion Review Committee report released May 2012.

Striking an equilibrium between high-impact practices and those without contact or collisions is challenging, Sparks said, because less practice could lead to a decrease in skill and proper techniques.

"While you reduce the opportunity for concussion, you certainly could increase the opportunity for other injuries, and some of them could be as serious as concussions," he said. "It's a balancing game. It's something that really needs to be carefully looked at."

That's Rodriguez's worry, too. It's also why it's hard for him to have a distinct position on the issue without seeing the mandates.

"Am I supportive of reducing concussions and head injuries? By all means I am," he said. "If that means we possibly reduce the amount of heading time in soccer, than yeah. It depends on what you're talking about."

So, it boils down to if the Maryland Board of Education passes the recommendations in May. And if so, what the criteria for high-impact practices becomes in Maryland, what other states decide to do and on the findings of future research.

"We're just watching it all," Sparks said. "And maybe what we know is prehistoric as far as our knowledge of brain injuries, but certainly we're learning more and more, and maybe sports as we know will look differently in years to come."

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