Anyone who has ever played football has gotten hurt. Be it a broken bone, concussion, or just a bruise that stings a little the next day, football players repeatedly come home with aches and pains. That’s the nature of such an inherently violent game.
Personally, I can’t count the number of injuries I sustained playing football. In fifth grade, I started playing as a running back and defensive end. Eventually I settled as a safety and receiver in high school, playing three years on varsity and starting for two. So for eight years, every fall morning was tinged with a little bit of pain as I tried to recover from the previous night’s practice. I broke my finger, sprained my ankle, separated my shoulder, and had more bruises than I could count.
Most of these injuries wound up being relatively minor, though. Bones healed; scrapes went away.
But some injuries are much longer-lasting. My dad, for instance, played college football. A linebacker, he gained a reputation for physical play despite an under-six-foot stature. Late in his career, he blew out his knee, which effectively ended his playing days. Because of the severity of the injury, he no longer has cartilage in his knee, making a lot of everyday activities difficult for him. Even walking up the stairs is a struggle.
While physical injuries can be serious and have a profound impact on one’s life, the ability to heal these injuries or diminish obstacles associated with them has progressed. The brain, and our understanding of how contact affects it, is different. So, understandably, concussions are the topic of discussion throughout football.
For the past few years, there has been an increasing movement by players, coaches, and fans to promote safety in the game. As far down as high school, some teams now require players to take a standardized baseline concussion test before every season. If, during the year, they sustain what might be a concussion, they aren’t allowed to practice until they can replicate their baseline.
In March the Ivy League made headlines by announcing a policy of its own: a ban on to-the-ground tackling in practices during the season.
According to Ivy League Executive Director Robin Harris, internal studies found that 49.6 percent of Ivy League concussions occurred during practice. Fifty-eight percent of those were helmet-to-helmet hits, and only four concussions occurred during non-contact practices.
“I know the rule has just been implemented this season,” senior defensive tackle Doug Webb said. “But honestly, we haven’t [tackled] since I’ve been here.”
This year a second policy takes effect. The same Ivy League study discovered that while kickoffs account for 5.8 percent of all plays, they account for 23 percent of all concussions in games. As a result, conference officials petitioned the NCAA to allow kickoffs from the 40-yard-line. The rule will apply only to in-league matchups.
“We understand there needs to be a balance between preparing our student athletes for the competition that’s going to occur but also protecting their safety during the course of the year,” Harris said. “While we don’t have all the answers when it comes to concussions, we are proud that these policies take proactive steps to enhance our student-athletes’ safety.”
The increasing concern over concussions and other head injuries is a recent phenomenon. Not until the early 2000s did scientific studies begin to train attention on concussions in the NFL in a systematic way.
“The culture was such that there was no such thing as a concussion,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “It was not even in the equation.”
There is no question that Murphy, who played college football at Springfield College from 1974 to 1977, grew up during a different time with regard to concussions. The nine-time Ivy-League-winning coach knows that he suffered at least two concussions during his career—one during pickup hockey and one after a blindside hit on a kickoff return. In neither case did he skip his next practice.
“Compared to the game I played...it’s unbelievably more safe,” Murphy said. “The culture [back then] was such that if someone complained of a headache, it wasn’t the coach who got after him. It was his teammates, his peers.”
So the decision by the Ivy League to eliminate tackling is a relatively unheard of and important move in football. The lack of tackling means that players only have one day a week of full hitting, and that’s during games.
Harvard had been one of the schools at the forefront of this movement. Well before the Ivy League decided to limit hitting in practices, Murphy and his staff were running “NFL-style” practices with limited hitting and no full contact.
These measures reflect the consensus concerning the dangers of head trauma. Concussions and other brain related injuries sustained by football players are long-lasting. Pervasiveness of an injury throughout life doesn’t mean much. My ankle still cracks every time I take a step, but it doesn’t stop me from living out my life it the fullest. It’s the degeneration, the debilitating symptoms caused by CTE that make changing the game important.
“I’m one of those guys who’ve seen both sides of it,” Murphy said. “The culture is so extraordinarily different in a positive way. Why? Because everybody talks about it…. [But] you keep having to improve it.”—Staff writer W. Gant Player can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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