Punch Drunk: The Ban on Tackling in Ivy League Football and its Repercussions

In late February, the eight Ivy League football coaches unanimously chose to eliminate all full contact hitting in practices. The move I considered the most aggressive measure yet to address brain injuries and trauma in football. After being formally affirmed by the Ivy League’s policy committee, athletic directors, and university presidents, this new rule will supplement existing limitations on full-contact practice frequency during the offseason and spring, which are among the most rigorous in collegiate football.

Although the research on concussion prevention is relatively new, studies have explicitly shown that limits on full contact practice can reduce the incidence of concussions. In the National Football League, concussions have declined during practices in both the preseason and regular season since 2012, when limits concerning the quantity of full contact practices were imposed. Medical director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation and co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of Medicine Dr. Robert Cantu has stated that current research clearly “shows that you not only have fewer subconcussive hits, but also concussions.”

While the evidence surrounding the benefits of limits on full contact is clear, the next step towards improving players’ safety is not. The elimination of full contact in practices for high school and collegiate athletes is an important measure; however, the introduction of more robust, controversial methods of injury reduction has complicated matters.

The Game Plan

Ivy League coaches’ decision to ban full contact in practices was largely inspired by Dartmouth head coach Buddy Teevens. Teevens eliminated full contact practices in 2010 in an attempt to reduce injuries, especially concussions, which atrophied players over the duration of the season and prevented them from playing in games. Currently, the Dartmouth football team hits tackling dummies and pads, including the “mobile virtual player,” or MVP, which was strategically designed by former Big Green football and Dartmouth Rugby Football Club alumni at the Thayer School of Engineering. Coach Teevens told the HPR that the introduction of the mobile virtual player has simultaneously reduced head injuries and improved the team’s tackling, as the simulated player movement has enabled Dartmouth players to train at the same or an increased volume with less danger. “People look at it and say we’re nuts,” Teevens said, “but it’s kept my guys healthy. It hasn’t hurt our level of play. It’s actually made us a better team.” Thus, changes like this can make it possible for players’ safety and health to improve without negatively affecting a team’s performance.

Moving the Chains: Initiatives from Youth to Professional Football

Since Coach John Gagliardi of Division III St. John’s University in Minnesota opted to eliminate hitting in practice altogether, the team has won four national titles and 489 games. This is by far the most wins of any coach, at any level. His “Winning with Nos” philosophy includes players’ prohibition from tackling in practice, no whistles or yelling, no playbook, no roster cuts, and no required strength and conditioning workouts. Following in Gagliardi’s footsteps, a majority of coaches across the United States have eradicated the Oklahoma Drill—a drill testing players in confined full contact situations—as well as other drills requiring players to hit heads. Coaches’ measures to reduce contact in instances like these have alleviated repetitive subconcussive trauma. In an interview with Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker, Dr. Cantu indicated that this trauma was especially evident among linemen and those that “[weren’t] necessarily people with a high, recognized concussion history,” but “individuals who collided heads on every play repetitively doing this, year after year, under levels that were tolerable for them to continue to play.”

Efforts at improving player safety in football are not exclusive to the professional and collegiate levels, as many youth leagues and high school football programs are undergoing similar adaptations. Started in 2013, the program Practice Like Pros actively promotes less contact in football practices. Supported by multiple NFL Hall of Famers and progressive-minded individuals from both medicine and football, Practice Like Pros has assisted efforts like those at Dartmouth, playing a critical role in mitigating the discrepancy between professional, collegiate, and high school football. In high school, 60 to 75 percent of concussions occur on the practice field compared to only three percent in the NFL. Presently, Practice Like Pros is working towards change in high school football by focusing on five areas of reform. This strategy emphasizes converting all youth leagues to flag football before the ninth grade level, eliminating full contact in the off season, reporting symptoms of concussions to prevent second impacts, ensuring full-time trainers are on every team and EMS at each game, and studying catastrophic injury and maintaining a national brain tissue bank.

Subsequent to the development of this program, dozens of states that control public school athletics have significantly reduced or eliminated contact in practice. Many Boys & Girls Clubs throughout America have taken additional measures to reduce the incidence of head trauma among children and young adults, shifting their emphasis from tackle football to flag football. In alignment with the mission of Practice Like Pros, Somerville Recreation switched its youth football programs from tackle to flag football for children in first through eighth grades after an increase in injuries and decline in enrollment. Somerville director of recreation and youth Jill Lathan stated in a press release that “the rise in injuries among young people playing contact football, both in game situations and during regular practices, demonstrates a need for us to reevaluate the programs we offer to our youngest residents.”

A 2015 study by the University of Wisconsin corroborates the effectiveness of contact limits on sports related concussions, claiming “the rate of SRC sustained in high school football practice was more than twice as high in the two seasons prior to a rule change limiting the amount and duration of full contact activities.” This statewide rule, which removes full contact the first week of the season and limits it to 75 minutes the second week and 60 minutes in the following weeks, has witnessed the rate of concussions among football players drop by approximately half. Although this change received initial pushback by those directly involved in the game in fear of reduced preparation, improvements in player health and reports of increased team-wide success have abated concerns.

The Coin Toss: Alternative Methods of Contact Reduction and their Repercussions

Executive director of the Ivy League Robin Harris addressed critics’ concern that these changes would alter the nature of the game in a late February statement: “We’re not trying to change the nature of the game, we’re just trying to make it safer.” One of the most recent suggestions to reduce brain trauma and concussions in competitive football is the “Hawk Tackle,” which “calls for the tackler to keep his head to the side while driving his shoulder into the thigh or chest of the runner.” This technique is derived from tackles made by rugby players. Assistant head coach of the Seattle Seahawks Rocky Seto, has noted that “It is safer and more effective than traditional methods while still packing a wallop.” After introducing the Seahawks’ Hawk Tackle to his players, 55-year-old Georgia Southern coach Willie Fritz’s team recorded their best season in tackling in 2014. These examples suggest that there are indeed methods to make the game safer without sacrificing performance.

Furthermore, rules against hitting opponents in a defenseless position in the head have reduced concussions at all levels of play, according to NFL Competition Committee co-chair Rich McKay. Since this ban, there have been significant reductions in concussions and fines for illegal hits, evidenced by the 25 percent drop in total concussions from 2013 to 2014 and a 36 percent decline since 2012 in the NFL.

Aside from the Hawk Tackle and measures to remove head-hits to defenseless players, one thought to prevent concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy is the shutting down of competitive football altogether. The idea has been suggested by students, parents, and medical professionals alike. While the elimination of football may remove the incidence of any football-related injury, especially in high school and collegiate athletics, it leaves a serious void—physically, emotionally, culturally, and socially. Universities and public education systems should indeed have the ability to regulate athletics in order to promote safety of participants. However, it should not be at the cost of a physical outlet, source of entertainment, and tradition of community for many. According to Michael Baumann of The Atlantic, while football has its cons, it can “build a sense of community for players and fans alike, and serve as a welcome escape from the pressures of ordinary life.” Baumann adds that, “The sport cuts across distinctions of race, class, geography, and religion in a way few other U.S. institutions do, and everyone who participates reaps the benefits.” By respecting both players and the game, teams can ban tackling in practice and disprove the argument “that if you’re not working on these techniques and skills in practice, but asking the athlete to do it on Saturday in a game, then they are potentially predisposed to injury,” as Gagliardi of St. John’s has.

The Ivy League’s elimination of full contact practices is certainly a step towards creating a safer environment for players. Admittedly, this rule change may affect how the game is played, as well as shape future safety reform, which could even bring about football’s demise. Nonetheless, the consideration of shutting down competitive football has immeasurable repercussions far beyond those directly involved in the sport, as football serves as a unifying force on college campuses throughout the United States, fostering community and pride in a population otherwise marked by its differences. Consequently, Harvard, the Ivy League, and football teams across the country should exercise cautious consideration in navigating the pathway to make football safer.

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