You won’t find a place where high school football is bigger than in Texas, the state that inspired the book, movie and TV series “Friday Night Lights.’’
But that love of the game’s hard knocks has its limits, at least when it comes to practice. This year Texas became among the first states in the nation to put limits on full-contact hitting in high school practices, part of an effort to curb concussions and other injuries.
Texas high school teams can now conduct full-contact practice for only 90 minutes a week. The limit does not apply during the preseason, when most blocking and tackling technique is taught.
Such practice limits are likely the wave of the future, seen as a practical and easy way to cut concussion risk.
The NFL, through its labor negotiations, has limited full-contact practices to an average of fewer than one a week. Next month the NCAA will discuss some form of contact limit for college teams.
And more and more high school associations, including Nebraska’s, are expected to follow the lead of Texas, Michigan and Arizona in imposing limits.
The move is also filtering down to the youth level, where some associations — including Pop Warner, the largest national youth football program — have cut back on contact.
Some have suggested an even more drastic measure: banning tackle football for youths under age 14.
But while taking such a cautious approach would limit head contact and might make sense, there’s no solid science to back it.
The National Academy of Sciences recently found a near-complete lack of scientific information on whether youth athletes are more at risk from concussions than older ones.
“There’s no basis for that,’’ said Dennis Molfese, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln brain expert who helped draft the academy study. “Why 14 years old?”
The future could also produce more lifelike tackling dummies, which would help keep players from having to use their own teammates as practice fodder while helping teach safer technique.
It’s unknown what percentage of concussions occurs in practice, but it appears to be a substantial number.
NCAA statistics show that college players are five times more likely to suffer a concussion in a game than in any individual practice. However, because practices in college far outnumber games — generally five times a week during the season, plus dozens of preseason and spring practices — it seems possible that most college concussions occur in practice.
Beyond concussions, concern is growing about the combined effect of the lesser blows to the head, and most of those occur in practice. A Wake Forest University study this year found that youth teams that limited contact in practice saw substantially fewer head impacts.
In college football, the Ivy League since 2011 has limited full-contact practices to two days a week. A similar rule went into effect this year in the Pacific-12 Conference. By next fall it’s likely all NCAA teams will be under some type of limit.
“That’s what our full intent is,’’ said Dr. Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer.
It doesn’t appear likely the NCAA will impose flat limits, like the Ivy League and Pac-12, instead considering the nature of the contact. For example, Hainline said, would a two-day contact limit protect players’ health as much as three days of contact that focused on tackling with proper technique?
The governing board for high school sports in Nebraska also has plans to tackle the issue in the coming year.
“I think within the near future we’ll have some kind of limits on contact in practice,’’ said Nate Neuhaus, the Nebraska School Activities Association’s assistant director for football.
The impact of any practice limits would vary, depending on the team. It’s believed few teams hit in practice every day, but some definitely hit more than others.
Chris Nowinski of the Sports Legacy Institute, a Boston-based organization that has been sounding the alarm on concussions in football, said he believes that half the concussions in the game could be eliminated simply by curbing hitting in practice and strongly enforcing game rules regarding contact to the head.
“I think football will get safer as long as we stay vigilant,’’ he said. “No one should accept the concussion rates we have.’’