Two weeks ago, the eight head football coaches of the Ivy League voted unanimously to ban full-contact hitting from all regular season practices. Though the decision has not yet been fully finalized—it must still be approved by the schools’ athletic directors and presidents, as well as by the League’s policy committee—the coaches’ decision should be heralded as a move in the right direction for the future of the sport and the safety of its participants.
With its frequent head-to-head collisions, football is especially susceptible to the problem of concussions, an issue which has come to the forefront of public consciousness in recent years. There is a growing body of research about the effects of brain trauma and conditions like chronic traumatic encephalopathy, as well as an ever-increasing list of lawsuits by former players against the National Football League. Football at lower levels—in college, in high school, in Pop Warner, and in Pee Wee—suffers from the same health hazards.
Unsurprisingly, evidence from high school leagues and the NFL has shown that reducing the number of hits players experience can help lower concussion rates. It thus makes sense to limit the contact that occurs during the season. In light of this, we applaud Harvard and the other Ivy League schools for moving to protect their student-athletes. The fact that some schools have already moved in this direction, with the banning of full-contact hitting year-round at Dartmouth since 2010 and in-season at Harvard for 15 years, reflects well on our conference.
Though the Ivy League is not considered a leader in the world of collegiate football, the Ancient Eight nevertheless hold a hallowed place in the early development of the sport and play a leadership role in the sphere of higher education. We hope that the coaches’ decision—and the already stringent practice restrictions of the Ivy League—can act as a model for other football conferences across the country at the collegiate level and below. Even if schools are hesitant to ban full-contact practices for fear of reducing their players’ tackling ability, we hope that they consider holding helmetless practices to mitigate the dangers of concussion-inducing hits and encourage the development of safer tackling technique.
A final reason to support these efforts is that the problem of head injuries in football may disproportionately affect athletes least able to handle the financial consequences. At Harvard, most football players receive financial aid, and suffering from severe head trauma is likely to be particularly economically burdensome for those students.The decision to ban full-contact practices is the right move: It shows the Ivy League’s commitment to protecting the health and safety of its student-athletes and should serve as a model for other universities. We can only hope that other institutions follow suit and demonstrate equal concern for the long-term health of their football players.