This past Christmas Day, Will Smith’s highly anticipated film Concussion was released in theaters across the country. It told the true story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the first man to speak out about the damaging effects of football on athletes. The movie didn’t perform as well as expected at the box office, but you can chalk that up to competition with the almighty Star Wars: The Force Awakens. (Yes, I may have seen it four times in theaters, and no, I don’t have any regrets about it.) But even if Concussion didn’t bring in the type of money critics expected, it did bring even more exposure to one of the biggest issues in sports today—the debate over football’s impact on traumatic brain injuries.
In the years since Omalu’s findings were published, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has been an extremely hot topic in the football world. CTE is a disease found in the brains of athletes, especially football players and boxers, who suffer repeated blows to the head over the course of their careers. Its symptoms are similar to those of dementia, including confusion and memory loss. The studies linking CTE to football have forced changes at every level of the game, from the NFL all the way down to Pop Warner. Leagues have reduced the number of full-contact practices and have outlawed plays that would result in blows to the head. The biggest step forward, however, came earlier this week. According to a New York Times report, the eight Ivy League football coaches have unanimously voted to outlaw all tackling at football practices.
Studies have shown that reducing tackling and full-contact play will reduce the risk of concussions for athletes. A 2013 study conducted by the joint biomedical school of Virginia Tech and Wake Forest found that eliminating full-contact practice doesn’t make youth football players more likely to suffer head injuries in games. And just last October, a University of Wisconsin study revealed that concussion rates among high school football players were halved following restrictions on full-contact practice.
All over the country, then, in an effort to crack down on CTE, leagues have reduced the time teams can spend doing full-contact drills. Other than the Ivy League, no one at the collegiate level has completely eliminated tackling from practice.
It makes sense that the Ivy League would be the first league to adopt this practice. It has long led the way in reforming how football is played in order to reduce concussions and athletes’ risk of developing CTE. In recent years, it has enacted its own rules about how often offseason full-contact practices can be held. In 2011, the Ivy League sharply reduced the number of full-contact practices teams could hold, creating a stricter regulation than the overall NCAA. Plus, Dartmouth College banned full-contact practices in 2010 and recently developed a robotic tackling device to help players practice without hitting other teammates. And now that the entire Ivy League has voted to ban full-contact practices, it has set an important precedent for football around the country.
It’s impossible to deny that football ruins athletes’ brains. Tragedies like NFL Hall of Famer Junior Seau’s suicide can be attributed to the physical, violent nature of football slowly destroying the brain. Incredibly high numbers of football players with CTE have been reported over the last few years. Just last September, a PBS report claimed that 87 out of 91 former professional football players tested positive for the disease. So with such high numbers of football players contracting CTE, it’s crucial that leagues make more of an effort to protect the players. In banning full-contact practices, the Ivy League has done just that.
This step forward won’t be popular with everyone. I get it—it’s football. Football is a sport that involves tackling and hits, the harder the better. I’ll be honest—one of my favorite football plays of all time is legendary Redskin Sean Taylor’s vicious hit on punter Brian Moorman in the 2007 Pro Bowl. Nobody’s going to outlaw tackling in games, so I can see why people might think eliminating tackling at practice is a little counter-productive. It might lead to much sloppier play when athletes have to go onto the field and play full-contact without having practiced that way.
While some people are reluctant to change football, others take the polar opposite view and argue to completely get rid of tackle football at all levels. Banning tackle football would certainly solve the problem of football players’ contracting CTE. Flag and two-hand touch football are already popular alternatives, so getting rid of tackle wouldn’t be a complete shock.
But I disagree. Tackle football is one of the most popular sports in the country, if not the most popular. The NFL has the highest net earning per team and minimum net earning per team in the world. Football is also arguably the most popular college sport. Football as we know it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. New drills designed to teach tackling while protecting athletes’ heads are being taught every season, helping players learn while reducing the risk of head injuries. And anyway, you can’t get to the collegiate football level without knowing how to tackle. Players don’t need to learn and practice tackling skills by the time they’re in college. In fact, full-contact practice increases the risk of injury. In getting rid of tackling at practice, the Ivy League also allows players to rest and recuperate from nagging injuries. Athletes can study the mechanics of tackling without actually doing it themselves.
And it hasn’t hurt Dartmouth—the Big Green have steadily improved over the past five years, compiling a 34-16 record that ties Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania at the top of the Ivy League rankings this past season. Getting rid of full-contact practice will reduce the players’ chances of getting concussions and potentially contracting CTE. That’s reason enough in my mind to ban tackling at practices.
Plus, the Ivy League is perfectly positioned to adopt this practice. While it is prestigious to be a student-athlete at an Ivy League school, there isn’t an intense focus on athletics there. Starting with recruiting, it is clear that athletics are secondary to academics. Contrast this with SEC schools, where football reigns supreme, and you can see why the Ivy League is the first to ban tackling. It’s fair to wonder whether the Ivy League would still institute this change if it competed in the FBS. After all, schools with legitimate chances to win important bowl games or even the college football playoffs aren’t changing anything about their football programs—because they’re more invested in the success of their teams, they’re more likely to hold out on following the Ivy League’s example. But I believe that you’ll see more reform among other football leagues soon enough.
The Ivy League’s move has set an excellent precedent for football. Banning full-contact practice at the college level is a smart move that has the potential to change football for the better. There is a staggering amount of data exposing the link between football and CTE. Eventually, leagues will have absolutely no excuse to avoid following the Ivy League’s example.
I get it—we’re all football fans, and we love seeing the hard hits in action. But CTE is a very serious problem that is affecting a huge percentage of former football players in awful ways. And at the end of the day, this is about the players.
Featured Image by Drew Hoo / Heights Editor