Mind the head.

Photographer: David Kamerman/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Banning Tackles in Football Practice Is Ivy League Smart

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Can the Ivy League, the birthplace of college football, find itself back at the forefront of the gridiron innovation? Let's hope so.

Last week, the league's eight football coaches voted unanimously to do away with full-contact hitting in regular-season practices as a way to counter long-term injury and brain damage. The most obvious follow-up question is whether Division 1 schools and conferences, including the formidable Power Five, will follow suit.

It's no secret that Alabama and Ohio State have much more at stake than those at the Ivies, whose prestige and endowments extend far beyond their relatively mediocre athletics. But this is an instance where the rest of college football -- and, most importantly, the NFL -- could stand to take a page out of the league's playbook. 

While in-game concussions draw most of the attention, scientists suspect that much of the permanent damage to players is the result of subconcussive blows -- smaller, much more frequent hits to the head players endure from the time they start in Pop Warner leagues. Practice accounts for a much higher number of subconcussive hits than games. Thus limiting the amount of live tackling in them can cut deeply into the career-long abuse that's so dangerous to young men.

Recognizing this, the Ivy League voted to limit full-contact practice to twice a week in 2011, at a time when all levels of football began re-examining their practice regimens.

According to the New York Times, the Ivies' latest move to do away with full-contact practice entirely was spearheaded by Dartmouth, whose head coach, Buddy Teevens, had already made that change in 2010. Teevens, previously a Power Five head coach at Stanford, has seen none of the negative effects on play that many players, coaches and other football insiders fear from "going soft" in practice. As the Times' Ken Belson noted, Dartmouth has finished "third, second and tied for first in the conference" in the last three seasons.

Teevens says the quality of the players' tackling has actually improved, with missed tackles declining by half. Dartmouth finished second to Princeton last season in total tackles, and came in third in sacks. The idea is that not using one's head as a weapon forces a player to learn a tackling technique that's ultimately more effective than traditional styles. In the NFL, Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll is trying to promote rugby-style tackling: using shoulders rather than the head and wrapping up around the legs of an opponent.

Full-contact practices have been limited at the lower levels of football to encouraging results. The Times cites a University of Wisconsin study that shows the concussion rate declined by half just a season after that state limited full-contact practices in high schools. The National Federation of State High School Associations convened a task force that last September recommended limiting full-contact practices to two to three times per week. In 2014, California governor Jerry Brown signed a law limiting such practices to twice a week during the regular season and capping them at 90 minutes each.

The NFL and its union agreed in 2011 to limit full-contact practices to 14 during the 18-week season, no more than one per week, and to eliminate two-a-days. Since 2012, with the exception of last season, the NFL has touted declining concussion rates, though this has been met by skepticism from those who note that players often don't report their symptoms, and doctors who stress that subconcussive hits are just as dangerous. 

But for its part, the NFL should get on board with the Ivy League's plan and wield some of its vast influence to get the rest of the NCAA to follow suit. As college sports continue to deal with criticisms over its treatment of athletes, the NFL is brought into the conversation as a silent bystander that benefits from what amounts to a free minor-league system. This is an instance where, beyond actually doing right by players, the NFL would see tangible benefits. College teams have little incentive to do something they perceive will lower the quality of play in order to extend the careers of athletes who will leave school after four years or less. But the NFL should embrace any measure that could potentially keep their players on the field years after they've graduated to the pros.

Given the recent report by the Wall Street Journal that the average shelf-life of a NFL player has shrunk from 4.99 years to 2.66 years since 2008, the league should support the move to keep its future players healthy -- if for no other reason than to protect its product.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net