Ivy League to Eliminate Tackling from Football Practices

Joe PantornoFeatured ColumnistMarch 1, 2016

FILE  In this Nov. 22, 2014, file photo, Harvard wide receiver Andrew Fischer (1) runs into the end zone for a late fourth quarter touchdown against Yale in their NCAA college football game at Harvard Stadium in Cambridge, Mass.  The Ivy League looks the same at the top this year, with defending champion Harvard the favorite to finish first again and familiar contenders like Dartmouth, Yale and Princeton expected to chase the Crimson to the title. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
Stephan Savoia/Associated Press

Football coaches in the Ivy League unanimously decided last week to remove tackling from regular-season practices, per a Tuesday report by Ken Belson of the New York Times.   

They made the decision in an attempt to further limit players' chances of suffering head and brain injuries. 

No tackling in practice is an extreme decrease from NCAA regulations, which state there can be four full-contact practices each week, but it's a decisive stance on a subject that's plagued the game of football. According to a report by Timothy Bella of Al Jazeera in December 2015, there were 501 reported concussions in the past three college football seasons. 

A study done by Ph.D. holder Timothy A. McGuine—a senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison—showed the elimination of full-contact practices could decrease injuries at lower levels of the sport, per Bert B. Vargas, M.D., of Neurology Reviews

In his study, McGuine tested high school football players from 2012-2014. In 2012 and 2013, teams had full-contact practices, and in 2014, they did not. Vargas noted some findings from McGuine's study:

During all three seasons, almost half the concussions (46%) occurred during tackling. Although the overall rate of concussions dropped from 1.57 per 1,000 athletic exposures in the combined 2012 and 2013 seasons to 1.28 per 1,000 athletic exposures in the 2014 season, the difference was not significant... 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, Dartmouth, has been reducing the amount of full-contact practices since 2010, per Belson. Instead of hitting teammates, players hit tackling dummies and a "specially designed 'mobile virtual player' that moves across the field the way a player would." 

“At this stage in their careers, these guys know how to hit and take a hit,” Dartmouth head coach Buddy Teevens told Belson. “People look at it and say we’re nuts. But it’s kept my guys healthy.”

It also hasn't hurt the team's performance. In 2015, Dartmouth won a share of the Ivy League conference title to cap off a 9-1 season. 

This is an easy enough equation: The less contact there is in practice, the less likely a player can suffer an injury that can hold him out of actual game time.

The decision prompted Nancy Armour of USA Today to write Tuesday that this could "maybe even save the game."

However, it does decrease the amount of time players experience the actual speed of play and get to hone their skills in game-like situations, something that could stunt a player's development. It didn't make much sense to radio talk show host John Ziegler:

It's up to the coaches to come up with solutions to keep their teams sharp in between games. But it's imperative that they continue teaching players how to avoid head injuries and how to tackle the right way.