- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Ivy League schools dominated college football from 1869 through 1919, with member institutions winning the first 29 national championships and 42 of the first 49. The league was a big deal back then, primarily due to its head start when Princeton was credited with playing in the first college football game (against Rutgers in 1869).

That’s the last time the sport paid much attention to Ivy League schools, renowned for brainy students far more than brawny athletes.

Focus has shifted to power conferences like the SEC and Big Ten, which can produce 20 percent or the players drafted annually by the NFL. By comparison, when three Ivy Leaguers were selected in the 2013 draft, they marked the conference’s first trio since 2001.

That’s a pinhole, not a pipeline.

But those clever Ivies are mulling over an idea that could create a lasting impact on the game. According to a report Tuesday in The New York Times, league coaches unanimously approved a rule change that would eliminate tackling in practices during the season.

A league spokesman said the move requires approval from athletic directors, policy committee members and school presidents, but you already can hear the snickers in places like Tuscaloosa, Tallahassee and Texas.

Football has faced withering criticism in recent years as more is learned about concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy is linked to the game. This has led to number of changes intended to make sport safer, consequently making old-school hard-liners angrier and angrier.

They lace their complaints with allusions to dresses and flags and two-hand touch. If the Ivy League makes a move toward the latter, at least during practice, how long before Power Five conferences follow suit?

From here, one day is too long.

Before all the tough guys get their panties in a bunch, they should consider what happened at Dartmouth when coach Buddy Teevens eliminated full-contact practices starting in 2010. His intention was to reduce the injuries and concussions that forced players to miss games and left them wore down at season’s end.

The decision is bearing fruit. After winning a total of nine games in the five seasons prior to the move, Dartmouth hasn’t finished below .500 since. The Big Green has won 17 games the last two seasons, including its first Ivy League championship since 1996.

“It hasn’t hurt our level of play,” Teevens told The New York Times. “It’s actually made us a better team.”

Indeed. Prohibiting tackling during practice presumably would hurt your defense the most, but Dartmouth was atop the Ivy League in virtually every defensive category last season while finishing second in tackles and third in sacks.

“At this stage in their careers, these guys know how to hit and take a hit,” Teevens said. “People look at it and say we’re nuts, but it’s kept my guys healthy.”

If you’re an angel investor, you might want to put some money in Mobile Tackling Target LLC, the company that created Dartmouth’s Mobile Virtual Player. It was formed by Teevens and some students in response to the coach’s desire for a safer, less-physical means of training his team for contact. You can find a clip of Big Green’s “MVP” on YouTube, where the remote-controlled tackling dummy shows off its moves.

The video could be a glimpse of the future.

Depending on who you ask, football is either under attack, making smart changes or both. Some observers have predicted the game is doomed and will eventually fade away. Practices devoid of tackling could slow or prevent the potential demise. It actually seems like the next logical step.

While the in-game emphasis is eliminating certain “big hits” and dangerous plays, another area of focus is reducing the cumulative effect of banging heads during practice.

Prior to the 2011 season, the NFL disallowed full-contact two-a-day practices during training camp and limited the number of full-contact padded practices during the regular season. NCAA guidelines aren’t as restrictive, but they prevent coaches from channeling Bear Bryant and Texas A&M’s “Junction Boys.” During the preseason, teams can hold full-contact practices up to four times a week and a maximum of 12 overall. Once the season starts, no more than two full-contact practices are allowed per week.

Dr. Robert Cantu is co-director at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University, as well as medical director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation. All the research on reduced contact in football practice “shows that you not only have fewer subconcussive hits, but also concussions,” he told The New York Times. “It’s not rocket science.”

The Ivy Leagues likely have produced their fair share of astrophysicists. But if the proposed tackling-in-practice ban takes root across high schools, the NCAA and ­— gasp! — the NFL, one small step for the Ivies would be one giant leap for football.

That would be progress.

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