Last spring it was the Ivy League. In an article entitled, “Ivy League Moves to Eliminate Tackling at Football Practices,” the New York Times wrote:
Ivy League football coaches have decided to take the extraordinary step of eliminating all full-contact hitting from practices during the regular season, the most aggressive measure yet to combat growing concerns about brain trauma and other injuries in the sport.
The move could influence how other football programs, from the youth level to the professionals, try to mitigate the physical toll of football, which has been played on Ivy League campuses since the 19th century.
The story says the move was inspired by Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens who started this policy with his program all the way back in 2010.
Now the NCAA is following suit by proposing changes to rules governing college football practices. In a Wall Street Journal article by Matthew Futterman, the rationale and proposal are described:
In an effort to reduce concussions and other injuries, the NCAA is recommending that college-football teams abandon two-a-day practices and scale back the number of full-contact days.
The proposal, distributed to schools by the NCAA Sport Science Institute on Tuesday, would significantly alter the way college football teams prepare for competition.
As the article notes – and as the comments from WSJ readers attest – the policy is likely to meet with some resistance from players and coaches who think the policy might make players less prepared for actual game situations or even change the very nature of the game. Interestingly, later in the article, Futterman notes that the new proposal actually would bring the NCAA practices closer to NFL policies, which were led by player concerns and were codified in the recent Collective Bargaining Agreement:
The changes in the NCAA preseason rules would bring it closer into line with the NFL, which has significantly cut back on full-contact practices. The league largely eliminated contact in off-season training and all preseason two-a-day contact sessions in the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement. The league now allows just 14 full-contact practices during the 18-week regular season, but 11 of them have to occur in the first 11 weeks and many teams don’t even hold that many.
All these goings on might be mostly amusing to Johnnie football fans and players. Of course John introduced these policies at Saint John’s well over 60 years ago and did so by simply applying common sense, as there were no longitudinal studies of head injuries; the science of brain trauma was in its infancy and players were just supposed to shake off concussions.
But on another level, these rule policy changes are not simply amusing because they affect the health and safety of football playing boys and young men – and not just as players, but over their lifetimes. They might also even affect the future of football as a game, as the new understanding of risks raise questions for parents and the liability associated with injuries raises financial issues for teams and programs.
So it is important – both as an academic concern of simply getting the history right and a matter of justice – to recognize the role that John Gagliardi had in this sensible rethinking of how football practices are run and how players are treated. I know of no coach who was as far ahead of his time than John.
However proud we are of John for his legacy of winning while educating successful men of character at Saint John’s University, the football world and future players owe John recognition for a legacy that is at least as important as his winning record, and will continue to touch lives for decades to come.
In an interesting coincidence, the WSJ story is introduced with a picture of two football players practicing, clad in red jerseys and white helmets. The caption says they are Nebraska football players. I prefer to think of them as Johnnies–as in the picture below.