Courtest of Jack Warhola

Since the national conversation around the dangers of football began, the Ivy League has been at the forefront of innovation to keep players safe. Last Monday, the conference’s efforts were reaffirmed in a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study showed that an Ivy League rule introduced in 2016 to move up kickoffs by five yards decreased concussions and offers potential insight into the future of football. The study compared concussion rates in the two years before and after the rule’s implementation and showed a reduction in kickoff-related concussions. Concussion rates in other non-targeted areas declined at a much slighter rate.

“The national conversation on concussions that occur in football can be informed by scientific research aimed at making sports safer,” lead author and director of the Penn Injury Science Center Douglas Wiebe said. “A simple yet strategic policy change helps sustain the quality of the game while making the game safer for student athletes.”

The Ivy League began an investigation into concussions in 2010. Football was the first sport that the conference reviewed before expanding the formal study of concussions to all varsity sports across the eight member schools. The conference found that kickoffs in football accounted for almost a quarter of all concussions during games despite amounting to just over five percent of all plays.

In an effort to reduce the concussion risk during kickoffs, Ancient Eight head coaches floated potential solutions and the league decided to implement two changes beginning in the 2016 season. First, it moved the kickoff from the 35-yard line to the 40-yard line. In addition, it extended the area eligible for a touchback by five yards, moving the boundary from the 20-yard line to the 25-yard line.

The combined reform incentivizes fair-catch plays. The receiving team has more reason to catch the ball, stop and then begin its next play at the 25-yard line if received behind it — instead of moving immediately into a high-collision sequence, which often results in high-impact blocks or tackles.

“The intent of the rule change on kickoffs was to make the game safer,” head coach Tony Reno said. “It’s been working. Having the new, fair-catch rule has clearly reduced the number of high-speed collisions. Kickoffs can be among the most exciting plays in the sport, but there is also great risk with a side of players running 40 or 50 yards at full speed … That impacted player safety two years ago, and it is even better now.”

In a sport that has struggled to balance its often-opposing commitments to entertain viewers while protecting players, the rule capitalizes on a small tweak that has a disproportionately large positive impact while minimally altering the rhythm of the game.

The study found that the results of the new regulation were extremely promising. Since 2016, 48 percent of kickoffs have resulted in a touchback, marking a 30.1 percent increase from the three seasons prior to the change. According to the study, this increase in touchbacks translated to a 68 percent decrease in the number of concussions.

“[This kickoff rule] is not a common solution, but it is talked about a lot on the national scale,” Athletics Director Vicky Chun said. “I commend the league for doing this … I foresee this kickoff rule as being the way it’s going to go. I see this going national — it’s not going to change the game that much.”

In response to the preliminary results, the NCAA adopted the Ivy League’s pilot in part. While the kickoff line has not been moved up nationally, all teams can now signal for a fair catch when receiving within the 25-yard line for a touchback.

The Journal of the American Medical Association is a peer-reviewed medical journal published by the American Medical Association, the nation’s largest association of physicians and medical students.

Angela Xiao | angela.xiao@yale.edu

Cristofer Zillo | cris.zillo@yale.edu