The Ivy League has become the first collegiate sporting association to remove tackling from regular-season season football practices, according to a report in the New York Times. The coaches voted unanimously to make the drastic change in order to limit players’ chances of suffering traumatic head and brain injures.
Although the NCAA regulates practice time, it has never prohibited tackling in practice. NCAA guidelines allow four full-contact practices a week, during which players can tackle each other at the same speed and intensity that they would during games. A report by Timothy Bella of Al Jazeera in December of 2015 estimated that there were 501 concussions reported during the last three college football seasons. The report could not account for all of the injuries which did not report as concussions.
The Ivy League’s decision came after several recent studies showed the serious impact that tackle football has on players. One study revealed that reducing contact at practice could help players avoid permanent brain damage. Dr. Timothy A. McGuine is a researcher at the University of Wisconsin Madison. Dr. McGuine’s study showed that football might be able to decrease injuries at non-professional levels by eliminating full-contact practice.
Dr. McGuine reached his conclusion by testing high school football players from 2012-2014. During 2012 and 2013, the boys endured full-contact practices, but in 2014 tackling during practices was eliminated. The results concluded that reducing the number of tackles reduced the number of exposures:
The difference in concussions occurring during practice, however, did differ significantly before and after the rule change. The rate of concussions during practice in 2014 was 0.33 concussions per 1,000 athletic exposures, compared with 0.76 concussions per 1,000 exposures in the 2012 and 2013 seasons. Twelve of 15 concussions in 2014 practices occurred during full-contact practices, a rate of 0.57 per 1,000 exposures, and 82 of 86 concussions in the 2012 and 2013 seasons occurred during full contact practices, a rate of 0.87 per 1,000 exposures.
One of the eight members of the Ivy League conference, Dartmouth, has already experimented with drastically reducing full-contact practices. Dartmouth players tackle dummies rather than each other, and also tackle simulated players running across the field. Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens said that since college players are assumed to have already learned how to give and take a hit, the practice restrictions haven’t hurt the players’ performance. The team was 9-1 last season and stayed healthier than other teams.
Critics of the Ivy League’s decision think it will hurt players who need to get used to the speed and strength by simulating game-like situations. They point out that it is still important for coaches to teach players how to avoid injuries, tackle properly and avoid head injuries. The Ivy League experiment will be watched closely by other football stakeholders to determine its effectiveness, including the NFL.
Although the NFL has already moved to limit some contact, the league’s response has been constrained by lawsuits and the collective bargaining agreement negotiations. The newest CBA has new provisions to protect players. One allow players to participate in no more than one full-contact practice each day during the pre-season training camp. Another limitation is on how many full-contact practices coaches can insist upon during a regular season, no more than 14 for the year. Although these are significant steps, they fall far short of what the Ivy League is now attempting.