Ivy Leagues find a smart way to reduce football injuries

Talk of college football’s history evokes a series of images for many of us: comparatively small guys streaked with mud, smiling or grimacing in leather helmets. In such sepia-toned photos, they wear the uniforms of Ivy League schools such as Columbia, Harvard and Yale, where Walter Camp, the “father of American football,” enrolled in 1876.

Now, more than a century after the Ivy League led in developing football, its members are leading in making the game safer. Coaches at the eight schools have agreed to eliminate tackling from practices during the regular season.

The Ivy League makes sense as a proving ground for the safety measure. The sport is no longer as big or profitable there as at the athletically dominant conferences. Ivy League players do not even get football scholarships.

Meanwhile, the harm football can do is clear. Every month seems to bring a new study on the prevalence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or another tale of a former star turned ill or suicidal by too many hits. Studies show that reducing hits in practice cuts down on concussions dramatically.

The Ivy League has generally been at the forefront of safety changes. Dartmouth unilaterally banned full-contact practices in 2010, and the league sharply reduced them in 2011. Now all of the Ivies are eliminating full contact at in-season practices.

Observers worried that players would lose their edge by not practicing tackles, but it turned out that working with tackling dummies, pads and other equipment was enough to keep them sharp. At Dartmouth, injuries and fatigue declined and the college has been among the league’s best for several years. Both the NFL and the NCAA have reduced full-contact practices in recent years, but the NCAA still allows a lot more tackling in practice than the pros. That should change.

Football is a dangerous game that America loves like no other. Enjoying this risky sport has created a moral conflict for fans and a continued hazard for players. If players and fans don’t want to lose the game, we have to do everything possible to reduce the harm it causes.