As the damage from sports related concussions soars, putting athletes at risk for long-term consequences like dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a preventive solution offers hope for the game of football. The Ivy League, prodded by Dartmouth football coach Buddy Teevens, has adopted new standards for limiting contact in training camp and during practices. Players will go through practices and drills without hitting another player. Is it possible to still play effectively and win without that contact?
When coach June Jones was getting his Atlanta Falcons squad ready for the season in 1994, he tried a different approach.
"We were worried that injuries in training camp and practice were stopping our team from using its best effort and energy during actual games," Jones said last week. "We were sure we could implement plays and strategies that would work in games without the constant hitting that injured so many players."
The Falcons had some success. Jones took the same regimen to the San Diego Chargers, as their head coach. He later introduced the concept to college football at Hawaii and SMU. Players would hit tackling dummies to keep their edge and Hawaii ended up the only undefeated Division I team in Jones' final season there. At SMU, he resurrected a moribund program and took them to multiple bowl games. He reported a dramatic decrease in concussions occurring both during practice time and in games themselves.
Virtually every time an offensive lineman hits a defensive lineman at the inception of a football play, either in practice or in a game, it produces a low level subconcussive shaking of the brain. Even though these hits are rarely diagnosed or treated as concussions, the aggregation of the hits takes a toll over time. If an offensive lineman leaves football with 10,000 subconcussive "events," it can have a negative impact on brain health. Eliminating the often dramatic tackles and hits from the training camp and practice experience could have a substantial impact in reducing concussion and other injuries.
Some will argue that it is impossible to implement effective game plans and play winning football using this protocol. We will see. Some will also argue that not preparing a player's body during training camp or practice for the impact that will occur in games might produce more injuries. Again, we will see. With every team in a conference using non-contact drills, the Ivy League experience this next season will be a laboratory experiment. Anything that can offer players a chance for better long-term brain health is an exciting breakthrough.
Is it likely that major college conferences and teams will try this experiment? Not likely in the short term. Most coaches have spent their entire careers coaching with contact in practice; they know no other way. It will seem like heresy and impossible to adopt.
However, this change will distinguish the Ivy League from high powered programs in the eyes of potentially elite athletes. If 50 percent of mothers become frightened by concussion reports and tell their teenage boys, "You can play any sport, but not tackle football," it will start to turn football into a gladiator sport played by athletes seeking to escape poverty. Those programs which run safer, less-injury prone practices, may start to see elite athletes from non-impoverished families gravitating towards those universities.
-- Leigh Steinberg has represented many of the most successful athletes and coaches in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing and golf, including the first overall pick in the NFL draft an unprecedented eight times, among more than 60 first-round selections. His clients have included Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, and he served as the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire." Follow him on Twitter @leighsteinberg.