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Ivy Leagues decision to eliminate hitting in football practice might help the game

Mar 4, 2016

Political writer George Will, a famously avid baseball fan, once said football combines the worst elements of American culture: violence, and committee meetings.

Football isn’t getting rid of the committee meetings, also known as huddles, but this week the Ivy League decided to reduce the violence.

Starting this season, no league team will be allowed to tackle during practice. The goal is to limit injuries, particularly concussions, which have become a national concern.

The announcement received more attention than Ivy League football has in years. Many applauded the decision as a means to protect players. Others believed it would help save the sport from self-destruction, while some fans warned it was the beginning of the end of the sport they love.

The decision is not as radical as it might sound.

True, back in the 1970s, when Division I football teams could have 120 players on scholarship, they would schedule 20 full-contact plays on Tuesday, and 20 more on Wednesday – almost the equivalent of a full game in midweek. But when the NCAA limited each team to 85 scholarships, coaches reduced hitting in practice to make sure their players were ready to go that weekend.

Decades ago, one Division III coach, John Gagliardi of St. John’s in Minnesota, decided to eliminate hitting in practice – and proceeded to win four national titles, while setting the record for most wins at any level.

I grew up playing hockey, where we hit all week during practices, then hit even harder during our games. One practice, I made the fatal mistake of looking down to find the puck in my skates – and woke up staring at four faces, asking how many fingers they were holding up. I had cracked my helmet, so I got a new one, and went back on the ice. Nothing criminal in any of that. That’s how we did it back then.

But we know better now. We know the damage major collisions, or even a lot of minor taps, can do to the brain. We’ve seen the studies, looked at the scans, and heard the horror stories.

But hockey – as violent as football – stopped hitting in practice years ago.

I’m not sure who started it, and I don’t recall anyone talking about it, but every team I know of, from the Detroit Red Wings to the Michigan Wolverines to the high school team I coached a decade or so ago, never hit in practice.

I understand the argument that if you don’t practice hitting, how will you know how to do it correctly in games?

In football, the theory goes, players who don’t learn how to hit will endanger themselves and their opponents in games by making awkward, unsafe lunges with their heads leading the way. That might be true – but that hasn’t happened in hockey.

I’m old school, and I like the hitting in hockey and football – but I don’t see why players need to practice it during the week.

I’ve even advocated, for years, that little league football be transformed into seven-on-seven flag football leagues – which are more fun, and offer more exercise – and they eliminate hitting in high school practice. But I didn’t expect the Ivy Leagues to take the first step.

We can reasonably expect a decrease in injuries, but no one knows if fiddling with the rules will decrease the popularity of the sport. If you change it too much, critics fear, it’s no longer football, and people will quit watching.

But critics said much the same things when the newly formed NCAA allowed teams to throw the ball wherever they liked. Critics also said the same thing when Michigan’s Fritz Crisler stopped making his players play both offense and defense, and separated them into platoons of specialists.

We don’t know yet, but maybe eliminating hitting in practice will only improve the game.

We also don’t know exactly how dangerous the sport today really is, and might not know for years, when scientific research comes back with the answer. But as hockey Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden said, “We can’t afford to wait for the science.”

The sport probably can’t wait to find out how patient parents will be, either.

President Obama said if he had had boys, he doesn’t think he would let them play football. Last week, in my class on the history of College Athletics, I asked my students how many would let their kids play football. Only half said they would.

Life is hard, and full of risks. Football, properly coached, can teach us that, but if the lessons cost too much, we’ll drop the class altogether.

If we must choose between watching football die a slow death because no one wants to play it, or eliminating hitting during practice – well, that strikes me as a no brainer.