What would be the impact of reduced roster sizes in college football?

If roster sizes are dramatically reduced in college football as part of the anticipated transformation of college sports resulting from settlement agreements in various federal antitrust lawsuits against the NCAA, some sports medicine directors, athletic trainers, coaches and administrators fear it could cause increased injuries and mental health problems for student-athletes.

Conferences throughout the sport are mulling whether to reduce the size of FBS football rosters from as many as 130 to 140 players down to 100 players or fewer.

The Power Four conferences — ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC — seem to be eyeing a roster size of about 100 to 110 players, sources told ESPN. Conference commissioners are scheduled to meet again Friday to discuss the issue.

“In college football, the attrition in injury rates and time lost is significantly higher than other sports,” said Brant Berkstresser, chairman of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association’s Intercollegiate Council on Sports Medicine. “And so roster sizes are going to need to reflect those injuries and time lost from an expectation of we know we are going to have good players who get injured and are going to miss, if not the majority of the season, a significant portion of the season.

“Roster sizes will need to still account for that in the essence that if a player goes down, we’re not drastically increasing the amount of repetitions, intensity and those things for the healthy players that are still participating.”

The NCAA and its conferences voted in late May to move forward with a multibillion-dollar agreement to settle three pending federal antitrust cases. Under the proposed terms of the deal, the NCAA will pay more than $2.7 billion in back damages over the next 10 years to former college athletes who were deprived of earning money from their name, image and likeness.

The plan would also include a revenue-sharing plan that would allow schools to distribute about $20 million annually to their athletes.

Other specific details of the settlement have not yet been made public, and the entire agreement still needs to be approved by U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken, who is overseeing all three antitrust cases that would be dismissed as part of the settlement.

However, sources have told ESPN that part of the agreement would get rid of the cap on how many scholarships a team can provide to its players. Currently, football teams are allowed to provide a maximum of 85 scholarships to their players.

To curtail costs and prevent some teams from stockpiling players, conferences are considering setting lower limits for the total roster size for football. Current rules limit teams to 120 roster spots during the football season. There are no limits currently on how many players can be on a team’s roster during spring practice or other parts of the offseason.

While NFL teams limit their rosters to 53 active players and 16 practice players during the regular season, coaches and medical professionals both warned that there are important distinctions that would make rosters of that size more risky at the college level.

Dr. James Andrews, a renowned orthopedic surgeon who was a consultant and medical director at Alabama and Auburn for 50 years until retiring from his practice in January, said dramatically reduced rosters would lead to increased exposure in practices and games, which will cause more injuries.

“It’s a fact that if you have more incidents of exposure, then you have more injuries,” Andrews said. “Injuries are related to exposures. If you practice contact every day of the week versus practicing contact one day a week, you’re going to have more injuries. And if you have less people to conduct your practice, they’re going to have more exposures and more injuries. Your better players are going to have more exposures, and more exposures definitely relate to more injuries. You can’t get around that.”

In the past, college football teams have relied on walk-ons and redshirt freshmen to run scout teams, which mirror the offenses and defenses that upcoming opponents use. With a reduced roster size, second- and third-team players might have to practice as scout teams, exposing them to more contact throughout the week, unless teams dramatically change the way they practice.

“They have to start really practicing very similar to the way they practice in the NFL so they don’t get hurt during the week,” Andrews said. “But here’s the problem with that: We’ve got young kids. In the pros, most of these players have already been groomed and cultured and taught, and of course they can get better. But a kid out of high school needs to be able to practice to learn how to play football. You’re not going to be able to have a bunch of roster spots for scout teams and walk-ons to fill the spots to develop your young players. It’s a mess.”

Sports Illustrated reported last month that SEC teams, including new members Oklahoma and Texas, averaged 121 players on their rosters in 2023. Alabama (137) had the most, while Missouri (105) had the fewest. SI said SEC teams averaged 58 players used per game — with Tennessee using 66.5 and Missouri playing 54.9.

Some coaches and team doctors have argued that smaller rosters would have more of an impact in practices than games.

Darryl Conway, the senior associate AD and chief health and welfare officer at Michigan, suggested the roster changes could be good for college football in terms of how they practice.

“Is there a need to put on full pads every day and practice?” Conway said.

Dropping to 115 roster spots might cause coaches to change their philosophy on practice and “go with more of an NFL model,” according to Conway. As in 13 times during the year with full pads instead of nearly every day, thus reducing contact in practice.

Berkstresser, the associate AD for sports medicine at Tarleton State, agreed that teams might have to change the way they practice if roster sizes are reduced. You can still practice and develop student-athletes in a collision sport without necessarily doing full live contact. Technique does not necessarily have to mean collision. And so fundamentally, there’s going to have to be a shift in what that looks like.”

NFL teams start with 90 players during training camp and make cuts to get to 53. NFL teams can activate players from taxi squads and sign free agents during the regular season to replace injured players. Colleges don’t currently have the option to add new players during the season.

“First and foremost is player safety,” Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz said. “And it’s about being able to maintain the health and safety of your players throughout the season. The [comparisons] to the NFL really have no bearing on college football because of the way a roster is constructed. They have 70 healthy players available at any one time because of the practice squad and the waiver wire. They are always able to practice at this same place.

“With what they are trying to impose on us with roster limits, you would be set with a number of players. There’s no ability to add or subtract from that team for your entire season. I don’t think that’s a practical way to go about it.”

One SEC team conducted a survey of its roster the past five seasons and found it had an average of about 12 season-ending injuries each season. It also redshirted an average of 12 freshmen, who are allowed to practice with the team but can play in up to only four games.

With reduced rosters, schools might no longer have the benefit of redshirting freshmen who might not be physically ready to practice against first-teamers and compete in games.

“In the NFL, in theory, you’ve got guys who already have the skill development,” said Ron Courson, Georgia’s executive associate athletic director for sports medicine. “You know, they’re 25, 30 years old. But if we have an 18-year-old come in that may have poor fundamentals, you want to make sure that you get enough people in practice for them to be able to develop their skills, so they’re safe to play in games.”

The looming decision also comes at a time when the sport is expanding the College Football Playoff to 12 teams, potentially adding four games to a team’s schedule if it advances from the first round to the CFP National Championship.

“You know, if you think about it, we’re at a point right now where we’re lengthening the season with the playoffs,” Courson said. “And we’re playing more competitive games with stronger opponents. And now if we cut the roster down, you’re going to have players that are going to have to play for longer periods without the same amount of rest.”

Several coaches have also expressed their dismay over the potential that the new rules might eliminate walk-on players, a traditional staple of many college football programs. The new limits would not, by rule, eliminate walk-on players. But coaches and administrators worry that with the combination of reduced roster sizes and unlimited scholarships, many teams will put their full rosters on scholarship and in effect close the door on the opportunity for walk-on students earning a spot on the team after they arrive on campus.

“I think it’s absolutely against college football, what it stands for and what it’s about,” Texas A&M coach Mike Elko said. “I think that would be a major problem, especially when you look at legacies of Texas A&M kids that are going to get the opportunity to play football at Texas A&M potentially taken away from them. I think that’s something really bad for the school.”

Some administrators have discussed a future solution in which schools would form club teams or non-scholarship junior varsity squads to give other students a chance to compete at football and to also provide an on-campus supply of players who could join the varsity team if roster spots opened because of in-season injuries.

“The military academies do that right now,” Nebraska athletics director Troy Dannen said. “I know that model, and it’s one you have to assess if it’s permissible.”

Dannen said there are still many things unclear about the new proposed limits, such as whether schools could pull up players from a club team or whether the new limit would apply just during the season or to how many players could be on the team year-round. The “devil is in the details,” he said.

Dannen said that he did not have a specific number in mind for what the ideal size of a roster would be, but “he’s not losing sleep” over the issue as long as the limits don’t drop all the way down to the 80s or lower and that schools are given ample time to adjust their roster size without having to immediately cut loose many players on the team.

Division I schools initially adopted stricter scholarship limits in the 1970s as a response to the wealthiest schools stockpiling top players and making it hard for others to compete. Some administrators fear that without some reasonable restriction, history could repeat itself.

Jon Steinbrecher, commissioner of the Mid-American Conference, said he thinks potential hoarding of talented players could make it hard to compete for Group of 5 conferences and for less wealthy schools in the power conferences.

“You know our partner Midwest conference [the Big Ten] for a good bit of that time [before scholarship limits] was known as the Big Two and the Little Eight. There’s a reason for that,” Steinbrecher said. “You can look at the dominance of other programs during that period of time, and I think you’ll see that has the possibility of occurring again.”

Steinbrecher said he was concerned that increased scholarship rosters would also increase the already high numbers of athletes using the transfer portal. He said many players who transfer are usually lower on the depth chart and seeking more playing time. While walk-on players are typically not candidates to leave school in search of more playing time, Steinbrecher argued that adding another 20 or 30 scholarship players who aren’t getting on the field will add to the number of players in the portal.

Schools with smaller budgets might also have trouble funding more than the 85 scholarships they already have. For each football scholarship that schools add, most will also have to add a scholarship roster spot on a women’s team as well to remain compliant with Title IX law.

Administrators and coaches in the power conferences are hopeful that their leagues will be able to agree to a roster size that prioritizes player safety without creating other problems. Individual schools will be left to decide if they can afford to — or want to — provide each player on their roster with a scholarship.

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