With a recent increase in awareness of concussions and soft tissue injuries in football, player safety has become an incredibly controversial topic that has opened the door to heavy scrutiny and prompted cautionary rule changes. Heavy penalties for illegal hits and more advanced concussion protocols have been implemented throughout the league to help remedy these issues, but the danger persists.
Talented athletes are taking note, evidenced by the recent retirements of Marshawn Lynch and Calvin Johnson, both elite position players who walked away in the prime of their careers due to health concerns. Together, coaches and executives are scrambling to enact rule changes that will maintain their players’ health without discouraging their competitive drive or limiting the entertainment value of America’s most popular sport. It is a difficult situation and one that has no obvious solution.
However, recent experimentation by Ivy League schools to minimize tackling during practices has provided significant progress towards solving this conundrum. While most college football teams follow the NFL model of limiting the number of full-contact practices throughout an 18-week season to 14, Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens elected to eliminate tackling from practices entirely.
Citing the need to limit head injuries and keeping his best players on the field, Teevens argues that there isn’t a need for athletes to harm each other outside of a real game.
“Either we change the way we coach the game, or we’re not going to have a game to coach,” Teevens said. “People look at [no tackling] and say we’re nuts. But it’s kept my guys healthy.”
Such a radical change has naturally drawn criticism and concerns. Baylor coach Art Briles has expressed reluctance over removing tackling from all practices, arguing that putting players in a real game situation without having experienced tackling in practice poses an additional risk. Harvard coach Tim Murphy is adamant that he will continue to implement the NFL model into his practices, stating that the changes taking place in the Ivy League won’t alter his approach to coaching.
Statistically speaking, however, there is no correlation between Teevens’ strategy and lackluster performance. In fact, Dartmouth’s defense has demonstrated staggering success on the field while also staying healthy, indicating that removing tackling from practice altogether might render more traditional coaching methods obsolete.
According to Teevens, concussion totals on his team were dramatically reduced from about 20 each year to no more than a handful. In terms of total defense, Dartmouth ranked fourth overall in the FCS, only allowing 277.7 yards per game to opposing offenses; in fact, they were the only FCS defense to limit the opponent to under four yards per play (3.8). This combination of health and elite defense culminated into a conference championship in 2015. If removing full contact from practices has had any effect on the team, it has clearly been a positive one.
Therefore, expanding this tactic beyond the Ivy League schools seems prudent for future success and participation of football players. Practice Like Pros, an organization dedicated towards promoting less contact in practices, reports that only three percent of NFL players sustain concussions from tackles in practice, yet in high school the rate is 60-75 percent.
This report indicates that children and adolescents participating in the sport would greatly benefit from emulating the Ivy League model; not only would their long-term health be better protected, but they’d also be able to keep participating in the sport they love.
Learning proper tackling technique without putting their teammates at risk of concussion would also help in keeping the best players active throughout the season, ensuring a greater chance of on-field success. Youth participation in tackle football has been declining due to parental concerns involving head trauma and the infamous CTE disease, and by taking the initiative and promoting no-tackling policies during practices, coaches can help reverse this trend.
Removing full contact in football practices will be a major step towards keeping future generations interested while drawing less controversy over concussions, helping to fix an image problem that has recently run rampant through America’s most popular sport.
Ben Seidel ’18 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is from Minneapolis, Minn. He majors in English with a concentration in film studies.