Political writer George Will, an avid baseball fan, once said, "Football combines the two worst things about America: It is violence, punctuated by committee meetings."
Football isn't getting rid of the committee meetings, also known as huddles, any time soon. But this week the Ivy League decided to reduce the violence. Starting this season, no Ivy League team will be allowed to tackle during practice. The goal is to limit concussions, which have become a national concern.
The announcement generated more attention than anything else Ivy League football teams have done in years. Many applauded the decision, while some critics warned it was the beginning of the end of the sport they love.
I can understand both arguments, but here's a third: If football can't convince parents the game is safe, parents will respond by killing football softly, simply by keeping their kids out of it.
Besides, the Ivy League's decision is not as radical as it seems. True, 40 years ago, 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 teams to 85 scholarships each in 1992, coaches reduced hitting in practice, to make sure their players could play in the games.
Decades age, a Division III coach named John Gagliardi, of St. John's in Minnesota, decided to eliminate hitting in practice altogether -- and proceeded to win four national titles, and 489 games, the most of any coach, at any level. OK, it's Division III, but Gagliardi's success still surprised the critics, who kept telling him he couldn’t win without practicing tackling.
I played high school hockey, where we hit all week during practice, then hit even harder during games. One practice, I made the fatal mistake of looking down to find the puck -- and woke up staring at four faces, asking how many fingers they were holding up. My helmet had cracked, so they gave me a new one, and I hopped back on the ice, a little woozy. Make all the jokes you like, but there was nothing criminal in any of that. That's just how we did things back then.
But we know better now. We know the damage major collisions, or even a lot of minor ones, can do to the brain. We've seen the studies, looked at the scans, and heard the horror stories. We've learned concussions themselves don't directly cause depression. But losing short-term memory, the ability to speak clearly and walk safely, and impulse control -- which puts the brakes on a lot of bad ideas -- can definitely lead to depression, which can lead to suicide; witness Dave Duerson and Junior Seau.
We don't have all the answers, and it will take decades to know how today's players will fare after football. But as hockey Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden said, "We can't afford to wait for the science."
We also already know parents won't wait that long, either. President Obama has said if he had sons, he wouldn't 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.
If football wants to avoid becoming a guilty pleasure, like boxing, it has to do something, and now. But some are concerned that football players who don't learn how to hit properly will endanger themselves and their opponents. That's possible, but hockey is as violent as football, and every hockey team I know of, from the Detroit Red Wings to the Michigan Wolverines to the high school team I coached 15 years ago, stopped hitting in practice years ago. The only result seems to be reduced injuries.
Others have argued if you change the game too much, people will quit watching. But critics said the same thing in 1906, when the newly formed NCAA allowed teams to throw the ball. Passing reduced brutal collisions -- which had claimed 18 lives the year before -- and placed a greater premium on speed and finesse, which increased the game's popularity with parents and fans.
The critics howled in 1945, too, when Michigan's Fritz Crisler started substituting players throughout the game by separating them into offensive and defensive units, instead of having them play both sides of the ball, all game long. Both innovations improved safety -- and the sport.
Dartmouth made the Ivy League's decision a lot easier when the Big Green eliminated tackling in practice back in 2010 -- then finished third, then second, then tied for first three years in a row.
"People look at it and say we're nuts," Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens told The New York Times. "But it's kept my guys healthy. It hasn't hurt our level of play. It's actually made us a better team."
With the Dartmouth Experiment deemed a success, the Ivy League's decision will likely put pressure on other leagues to make similar promises to parents, or risk losing their sons to schools that don't allow tackling in practice.
Life is hard, and full of risks. Football, properly coached, can teach us that, and more. But if the lessons cost too much, parents will probably insist their sons drop the class altogether.
If we must choose between watching football die a slow death because nobody wants to play it, or eliminating hitting during practice -- well, that strikes me as a no-brainer.
-- John U. Bacon is the author of four New York Times bestsellers. His latest book, Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football was published in September. He gives weekly commentary on Michigan Radio, teaches at the University of Michigan and Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, and speaks nationwide on leadership and diversity. Learn more at JohnUBacon.com, and follow him on Twitter @johnubacon.