When the Ivy League banned full-contact tackling from all regular-season practices last March, it certainly generated some headlines, many positive. It also raised some eyebrows: radio personalities and callers sometimes discussed the story as though there would be no tackling at all in the league.
Today, Princeton head coach Bob Surace laughs at how the move was mischaracterized early on. Players still practice tackling—but it's the Ivy League, so they're being smart about it.
"This was a rule that I think didn't affect a lot of schools in our league; maybe slightly," said Surace, whose teams haven't used full-contact tackling during in-season practices since he arrived as head coach in 2010.
The measure did, however, serve as a strong statement that the league and its coaches—who voted unanimously in its favor—were taking player safety and concussion risks seriously, leading the way as they have at other times in college football history.
"Our league is operating at a much higher level than when I played 25 years ago," said Surace, who helped Princeton share the Ivy League title as a player in 1989. The Tigers just claimed a share of this year's Ivy League title, too, after going 8-2 this season. "It's a violent sport, and there's going to be some injuries in games. But if you can decrease the ones from practice to an absolute minimum, you'll be closer to full strength most weeks."
The idea behind the ban is simple: less hitting means less risk of brain damage and other physical injuries, and more opportunity to recover between games. Each team in the league handles how it simulates tackling during the season in its own way. The Tigers, for example, still do some 15-minute periods of live tackling during spring camp, but not on consecutive days, and they have one preseason scrimmage with tackling in the off-season. Once games have started, however, they limit full-speed tackling to simulations with four-foot-tall donuts, which cuts down not only on concussion risks but also on the leg and ankle injuries that take a toll on a team's depth chart. That's especially helpful in the Ivy League, which generally doesn't permit its members to redshirt players.
Surace couldn't offer much yet on the extent injury numbers may have changed with the new measure this season, but Ivy League football coaches and league officials will meet in February, and the league says it's interested in what all of its coaches have to say.
Surace grew up practicing football in full pads with full contact, even on the eve of games. The former All-Ivy center can sound like an old-school football coach occasionally, but Surace has had to adapt and, in his words, shed some of that old "line grunt" mentality in order to find a competitive edge in today's game. Lately, that's meant delving more into the use of technology and data. His teams practice at a fast tempo that's closely monitored and, to some degree, influenced by the University of Oregon during its heyday (a former Tigers assistant had previously coached under Chip Kelly).
"We're getting data in real time and we literally have iPads out on the field in practice and players are competing to see who can have the highest workload on Tuesday and Wednesday and who can have the lowest one on Thursday when we're getting our legs back," Surace said. "I would never have imagined four years ago I would be utilizing science to structure practice, to organize it and to get peak performance."
The league-wide tackling rule is just one more way, he said, that the future is really already here in the Ivies.
"I think we're all fine with this," Surace said, "because we know if we're not, the game's going to get away from us."
Tigers junior defensive lineman Kurt Holuba said he and teammates reacted to the league policy with a "So what?"
"In the future, I see this trend continuing," Holuba said. "You see it in the NFL with rule changes that basically make it very rare for teams to practice in full pads with contact during preseason and the regular season. Preserving the health and safety of players is at the forefront of the football conversation, and I think it will only continue to become more of an issue."
Another Ivy League member, Dartmouth College, has been a trailblazer on football safety issues. Head coach Buddy Teevens doesn't permit tackling in practice, nor do his players tackle one another other in the spring or preseason. He's even testified before Congress on the benefits of going tackle-free, and many credit him for inspiring the league-wide tackling measure, although it doesn't go to the same year-round, full-contact lengths as the Big Green does.
Instead, Dartmouth has developed high-tech tackling robots for practice, which are now also used by NFL teams and some college teams like West Virginia and Notre Dame. The Mobile Virtual Player, or MVP, is controlled remotely and powered by a motor. It's meant to be the size of a college or NFL player and moves at game speed.
John Currier, CEO of MVP and a researcher at Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering, said the first time Dartmouth players got to use the robots in a practice was at Opening Day of 2015 camp, when all the local media was present.
"The players all looked at it and were all kind of taken aback, like, 'What is this thing?'" said Currier. "They had a chance to tackle it, and become familiar with it because it's going to run, it's going to juke, it's going to stop on a dime. It's still a curiosity to people when they hear about it at first, but it's become more of a practice tool for our players."
Currier said teams use the robots to replicate a quarterback, to practice cut blocking, or to practice hitting a receiver in the open field, things that are difficult to do otherwise for injury risk reasons. He said from recent talks he expects there to be more college teams using them next spring.
Currier credited Dartmouth's culture and entrepreneurial spirit for bringing the product to life.
"When Teevens goes into the engineering school, it's a familiar place," said Currier, who graduated from Dartmouth with Teevens in 1979. "Not a strange place to him, and that's really unusual. We have a lot of engineers on the football team, which is unusual. People thought Buddy was certifiably nuts at the time [he first banned tackling at practice in 2010], but Buddy is a very visionary guy."
The Ivy League headquarters are located just blocks from Princeton's football offices, in New Jersey. There, officials were keeping an eye on how the tackling rule change works out as the season wound down.
For each of the past four years, the league has conducted a conference-wide epidemiology study looking at concussions and safety in all varsity sports, including football. Princeton's team physician is the principal investigator and has a research assistant at each member school collecting data, as well as a coordinator in the league office. Deputy Executive Director Carolyn Campbell-McGovern said some Big Ten schools are participating in this year's study, as well.
While the league has access to NCAA studies already, Campbell-McGovern said, "it wasn't at the level of granular detail we were hoping for." The Ivy League study will include information on some specific high-injury plays, such as kickoffs.
"It'll be interesting to see at the end of the season when we're in contact with the coaches and see how the tackling rule went," Campbell-McGovern said. They will be able to compare data to the previous years' studies, and see whether new measures make a difference.
(The Ivy League also moved kickoffs from the 35 to the 40-yard line this year, an experimental rule approved by the NCAA which in theory would increase the number of touch-backs and was also expected to help improve player safety.)
Campbell-McGovern said the league has heard from other conferences curious about how the tackling rule is working. "I think just like the forward pass, if it's a good idea it'll catch on," she said, alluding to how the Ivy League popularized the pass play after its legalization in the early 1900s.
Surace thinks that all levels of football should take a look at what the Ivy League is doing to address safety, and believes that doing so will safeguard not only the athletes' health but also the future of the sport.
"We hope it trickles down to high school, middle school, and Pop Warner. For our schools, we haven't lost anything," he said. "We could keep doing what we did in 1988 when I played, but then this game is going to be extinct. Or you can make this game safer."
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