Ivy League Football: Leading the Way to Safer Play in A Most Violent Game


head tackle football

It was November 1982, and I was a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, in the nosebleed seats of Franklin Field with friends, watching our Quakers fritter away a 20-0 lead against Harvard, which took the lead 21-20 late in the game.

With less than 2 minutes to play, the Quakers somehow make a miraculous comeback – missing a field goal but still getting the roughing the kicker call, and making a winning field goal with zero seconds on the clock.

It was a euphoric moment for students at Penn on that cool Autumn afternoon. With that victory, Penn won it’s first Ivy League championship in 26 years. Did we expect Penn to go on to win four more Ivy titles in a row? Did anyone outside of Penn care? In college-football-mad-America, probably not. But we the students were pleased as punch – we could shout “Kill ’em Quakers!” with glee and pride while enjoying the irony.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Call for a Boycott

And then, 36 years later, I’m listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History, and feel this tightening of the stomach as my writer hero rips into my alma mater, reliving a speech he gave to Penn students in 2013 that football was dangerous, citing the death of Penn student and varsity football player, Owen Thomas. Gladwell called for Penn students to boycott football, that we were too smart to be so ignorant of the inherent risk of the game.

Well, it’s your classmates who are dying, right? It’s your classmates who are putting their lives at risk by playing this game. I think all of you has to think about, has to consider boycotting football games at Penn and I think you have to convince your friends to boycott football games at Penn and I think you have to picket outside football games at Penn. And I think you have to go to the administrators of this university and you have to ask them why is a world-class institution, one of the finest universities of higher learning in this planet, exposing its own students to the risk of injury and death? And if they ask for proof, tell them you don’t need proof. Sometimes proof is just another word for letting people suffer. Thank you.

The reaction at Penn was mixed and muted. A Wharton senior who was also on the Penn football team, John Onwualu, said that “the way [Gladwell] expressed his opinions was inappropriate and disrespectful for a speech like that.”

Dartmouth Leads the Way

Gladwell’s intent was to be provocative. Perhaps he was aware of the movement taking place in another part of the Ivy League when he broadcasted this podcast earlier this year. According to a New York Times article called “The Ivy League Becomes the Future of Football,” the coach of the Big Green of Dartmouth began instituting changes to the way the team practices that impacted not only the number of injuries sustained during the season, but also the team’s performance. More significantly, Dartmouth’s practices have influenced how football players all over the country, at the college and professional level train. Here’s a close look at two that are revolutionizing football:

No Tackle Practice: When the head is hit or shaken countless times, the brain is physically impacted and over time, this repeated head trauma can lead to degenerative brain disorders, life-threatening disorders, like CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). In 2010, the head coach of Dartmouth College’s football team, Buddy Teevens, decreed something very unique – the elimination of tackling in practice year round. As the Times’ article states, Teevens likes to say that a Dartmouth player will never get tackled by another Dartmouth player in his career there.

Remote-controlled Tackling Dummies: Looking for a way for his players to safely practice their tackling, Teevens helped develop a technological solution – remote-controlled dummies. Dubbed “mobile virtual players,” these MVPs are fast, able to change directions quickly, and can self-right themselves after getting tackled. In this manner, Teevens can arrange practices that allow his players to focus on tackling technique without the risk of injury to another player.

“The only times my guy tackle are ten times in games,” said Teevens in the video below. “It will allow them to be more proficient and successful. And concussive injury reduction is going to be huge for us.”

The Impact: Immediately after the implementation of the No Tackle policy, Dartmouth’s Big Green had mixed results, but trended positively. In 2011, 2013, and 2104, they always won their final three games of the season, displaying a late-season resiliency, before winning a share of the Ivy title in 2015.

Perhaps influenced by the fewer injuries and freshness of Dartmouth players, Ivy League coaches voted unanimously in March, 2016 to change a rule that results in the elimination of tackling in practices during the season throughout the conference.

At the same time, the Ivy League also voted to reduce injuries during kick-off returns, where 21% of all concussions were experienced, despite the fact that the kick-off return accounted for only 6% of all plays. The kick off allows players to get to full acceleration before hitting each other – imagine two accelerating cars smashing headfirst into each other. A rule change moved the kick-off to the forty yard line from the thirty-five, resulting in far more kicks unreturned. Two years of data showed a significant decrease in concussions during kick offs.

Buddy Teevens
Head coach of Dartmouth College football team, Buddy Teevens

The NFL is making changes, probably due to a fear of liability and diminished popularity over time. As the San Francisco Chronicle points out, participation in high school in the United States has been dropping since 2008, falling even more rapidly in California, probably because high school football players are significantly more likely to experience a concussion than baseball or basketball players in high school.

It may not seem like an existential crisis for football in America. But safety is growing in importance, as Teevens is quoted in the Times:

Beyond wanting to win, Teevens is motivated by a fear that an irreplaceable sport could die. “I think it’s too valuable a game to say, ‘Oh, we’ll do something else,’” he said. “But I also look at the data and the medical side of it. Something has to be done.”