With the Yale-Harvard game coming up this Saturday, it’s worth remembering that football is, in fact, dangerous. As Dr. Ann McKee of Boston University famously pointed out in a study this past July, NFL players seem to be at a higher risk for developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a serious neurodegenerative disorder. All but one of the 111 NFL players whose brains she analyzed showed signs of the disease, and more than half of former college players did too. According to Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune, this is reason enough for Yale and Harvard to end their venerable yearly tradition and stop playing football altogether.
But that’s a silly idea. If we’re serious about saving lives and preventing chronic traumatic encephalopathy, it’s absurd to leave football solely in the hands of the NFL and the colleges that feed into it. These are institutions that have an incentive to keep the game lucrative, but not necessarily safe, and they aren’t likely to change the sport much anytime soon. But we can. The Ancient Eight are powerful institutions whose actions carry a lot of weight. Why not use our influence to change football? The Ivy League ought to take the lead by becoming a laboratory of sorts for new rules and policies.
To the league’s credit, it has already started to do so. It banned all tackling from practices during the regular season, largely because of concerns regarding chronic traumatic encephalopathy. It’s also moved kickoffs to the 40-yard line to reduce the number of kickoff returns, which are dangerous plays that lead to nearly a quarter of the concussions suffered during games. Dartmouth went one step further and developed a “mobile virtual player,” which is basically just a robot with plush padding that’s safer to tackle than a human being during practices. If the league’s official statistics are to be believed, such measures have had a distinct impact on the number of violent plays and injuries suffered over the course of the season.
But the Ivy League isn’t dreaming big enough here. These are pretty conservative changes that don’t fundamentally change the way the game is played. We’re all still watching groups of dudes smash into each other at high speeds repeatedly. Why aren’t we embracing more radicalism? Why haven’t we tried getting rid of helmets? Dr. Erik Swartz of the University of New Hampshire suggests that helmets have lulled players into thinking they can hit each other especially hard. Helmets could be fitted with sensors to alert referees of helmet-to-helmet collisions. It also makes sense to stop defenseless receivers from being tackled midcatch and introduce weight classes similar to those in wrestling and crew.
Whether anyone agrees with me or not, the point here is that there’s no reason Ivy League football needs to look anything like what’s played at Alabama or Auburn. If we’re honest with ourselves, it already doesn’t. I’m not much of a football fan, but even to my untrained eye, watching the Yale-Harvard game is a completely different experience than watching the Rose Bowl or the Southeastern Conference championships. Besides, we shouldn’t emulate a model that probably leads thousands of college players to permanent brain damage each year.
The drawback is that by changing our rules, schools outside the Ivy League won’t want to play against us. This means our seasons will be shorter. But maybe that’s a good thing. The title of Ivy League champion currently goes to the team or teams with the best win-loss record at the end of the regular season. This has some rather ridiculous implications. If Yale loses to Harvard this weekend, we may end up with three Ivy League co-champions — that’s nearly half of the league! By changing our rules and shortening our season, maybe we can start hosting playoffs to decide on a single champion each year.
The Game is one of my favorite college traditions, but I neither know nor particularly care about the technical intricacies of football. Though I’m sure there are a few traditionalists out there who do, I’d guess that most of us are just there to enjoy the tailgate and watch our friends win against that dumpster fire of a school up north. If a safer game is a weirder game, I’m totally OK with it.
Shreyas Tirumala is a senior in Trumbull College. Contact him at shreyas.tirumala @yale.edu .