Last week, at their annual meeting, the Ivy League’s eight head football coaches unanimously made an unprecedented decision to eliminate tackling from all regular season practices.
At this time, the vote only represents the opinion of the coaches, although one school’s athletic director and the director of the Ivy League and her staff did attend the meeting.
While still pending approval from the conference’s respective athletic directors and university presidents, Penn coach Ray Priore is confident that it will become league policy by next season.
“Why would they not want to endorse what we want to do?” Priore asked regarding endorsements from league officials. “It’s only making the game safer.”
Unfortunately Penn athletic director Grace Calhoun could not be reached for comment.
Assuming that Calhoun and the other ADs and presidents support it, the measure will be the most aggressive move to decrease the number of head injuries sustained by collegiate football players to date. As a result, it could not only change Ivy League football but send shockwaves throughout the NCAA.
The proposal would not affect current rules governing spring and preseason practices but would prevent programs from holding full-contact practices during the 10-week season.
That this move came from the Ivy League is no surprise. Teams are currently only allowed two full-contact practice a week while the NCAA-wide maximum is set at four.
Yet, despite the prior initiatives that the Ivy League has already undertaken, the news came as a surprise on Tuesday afternoon. When the New York Times broke the story, discussion of the vote had not yet hit the public or even every administrator within the Ivy League.
“It had nothing to do with anything in particular,” Priore said as to why the movement came now. “Only of ‘how do we move further based upon the knowledge and the data, that the amount of exposures that you get only can increase the possibilities of getting more concussions?”
In addition to not being triggered by a specific event, there had not even been extensive talks before the meeting about the proposal. It was simply one of the many suggestions coaches submitted and was near the top of the agenda, Priore explained.
However, considering the previous measures the league has taken for player safety, this was in many ways the next logical step.
“I think it’s going right along with where we were heading anyway,” Priore said of the proposal, “which is try to be as efficient, and smart by how we go and we set our plan for practices every day, every week, every month as we go through it.”
Within the Ivy League it has been Dartmouth — and Coach Buddy Teevens — who have led the charge for reducing players’ exposure to concussive and sub-concussive blows. Teevens eliminated full-contact practices for his team back in 2010 and has continued to do so ever since.
Teevens has fostered a relatively new-style approach that Priore and other coaches have followed.
“I hate the saying ‘there’s an old-school and a new-school about how to do things,’ but I do think there is a new way to practice on a day-to-day basis and still get those players to stay healthy,” Priore said.
We’ve changed dramatically since when I first got here and there was three sessions of practices a night and two weeks of straight doubles,” he went on to explain. “It was just different.”
Teevens’ model — as well as a joint study between the Ivy League and Big Ten conferences — was part of the inspiration for the decision. Previous aggressive policies have decreased concussions in the Ivy League. The goal of this proposal is to further reduce those numbers and protect the brains of the conference’s student-athletes.
Priore explained how instruction and coaching, in addition to legislation, have evolved within his program and the rest of the league. Penn now teaches tackling like Seattle Seahawks — and former USC — coach Pete Carroll.
“We’ve changed the way we tackle,” he said. “Pete Carroll has a whole narrative on a new way of tackling that’s basically a rugby-style tackling.
“It’s basically taking the head out of the game of tackling, which is very contradictory to old ways of teaching tackling.”
It’s clear how old-school coaches and players may be resistant to such a drastic change that challenges the very way they were taught to play the game. But, Priore ensures that the new method of tackling, coupled with the reduction in exposure to hits, not only makes the game safer, but does so without hindering performance.
“We have seen, just in our way of teaching, it has not made us any less productive on the football field by now,” the defending Ivy League champion coach emphasized.
Current college players are not the only athletes that Priore and the conference hope to affect.
“We as coaches have to go and do a good job of teaching and going out to the community, to the Pop Warner groups and the high school groups, passing down our knowledge that we get from the studies that we have,” he explained.
The Ivy League may not be the predominant power on the gridiron these days, but the way they play the game could still change the sport and improve players’ health in the process.
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