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Ivy League Becomes College Football's Model For Player Safety
When the Ivy League instituted new practice rules in 2011 designed to limit impacts to the brain, Princeton football coach Bob Surace felt at home. The standards were similar to when he worked for Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis in the NFL.
Surace believes Princeton has become a more physical team than before he arrived, when the team conducted more live hitting than it does today.
“We’ve become a better tackling team,” Surace said, “yet we’re practicing really smart.”
The Ivy League is being studied across college football ever since the conference created practice standards far exceeding the NCAA limits. The Ivy League limits full-contact practices in football to twice per week, compared with a maximum of five under NCAA guidelines. The NCAA says most college teams only hit about twice a week.
In addition, the Ivy League reduced contact practices in the spring to seven, five of which can involve tackling. The NCAA allows 12 contact practices. The Ivy League also took the lead nationally on strengthening additional penalties for targeting or helmet-to-helmet hits, something other conferences now do.
“For our presidents, it really became a situation two falls ago where we had enough information to know brain trauma was a problem,” Ivy League executive director Robin Harris said. “If you wait around for the perfect data, you may never take action. Will this be all of the data? Probably not. But at least we’ve done something to improve the welfare of student-athletes.”
College football players sustain more total hits to the head in practices than in games, according to a 2010 study of three Division I teams that was funded by the National Institutes of Health.
The study found that Brown, Dartmouth and Virginia Tech averaged about 2,500 total hits to the head over the course of a season in practice, and 300 of those came in the range that could cause concussions. Linemen and linebackers sustained the largest number of head impacts per practice and game.
“What’s very clear is if you reduce contacts in practice, you’ll reduce the likelihood of brain trauma and concussions,” said Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association and a former UCLA linebacker. “Precedent has already been set with Pop Warner, the NFL and the Ivy League. There’s no reason whatsoever that college sports shouldn’t follow suit.”
The Ivy League is researching the impact of its practice restrictions in several sports, not just football. The Big Ten became a partner with the Ivy League to study the issue, and the SEC followed by forming a working group last June to study concussions.
Harris said the Ivy League considered limiting full contact to once a week, the new standard in the NFL. She wouldn’t rule out the NFL model eventually coming to the Ivy League.
“The concern is for some guys to be prepared to make the tackle in a game and to know the proper technique,” Harris said. “It is a balance of what’s the right amount of coaching vs. we don’t need to do this anymore and put players at risk.”
Dave Klossner, NCAA director of health and safety, said what drills get used in practices can be just as important as limiting the contact days.
“If coaches and athletes are still exposed to specific drills that have exposure to high levels of impact, then that’s important to consider during those two days,” Klossner said. “The same is true with the number of minutes and hours of those drills during those two days. That’s why it’s important to do controlled research studies to see if there are actual differences.”
Surace doesn’t need studies to know his preference.
When Princeton does tackling drills, a shield gets used instead of any helmet-to-helmet contact. When it’s time for the blocking dummies, Surace holds them most of the time.
“You can get great work in, but there’s a cushion to the blow,” he said. “There has to be a balance so players have the proper technique and aren’t hurt in a game. But the game is changing. When I was 12 years old in Pop Warner, we used to do a ring (with one-on-one hitting) all the time and find out who’s tough. There’s still ways of finding out in practices before the first game who the tough guys are.”
Surace can’t help but reflect on how he used to conduct practices years ago.
“When you look back at what you did, you say, ‘Boy, I hope it wasn’t any of my players (who suffered brain trauma),’” he said. “Because you didn’t know any better. I think it caused guys to look in the mirror and say, ‘If I’m going to be coaching 10 years from now, then I better be able to adapt to the future environment.’
“It’s no different than coaches didn’t have the forward pass at one point, or there were no rookie quarterbacks in the NFL. I think coaches are learning this game can still maintain its physicality and contact and beauty and educational aspects, and the best coaches adapt.”
By Jon Solomon, AL.com