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Opinion Here’s one way to make football safer

Dartmouth College Engineering graduate Quinn Connell, upper left, controls the movement of the team's “mobile virtual player” during a football practice on Aug. 26, 2015. (Jim Cole/AP)

Researchers have long warned about the dangers of tackle football, as I wrote last month. The sport often results in serious head injuries, the cumulative effect of which leads to a degenerative neurological disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

But there’s a solution that can significantly reduce the lifetime risk of CTE: eliminating live tackling in practice. Dartmouth College took that unprecedented step in 2010, demonstrating that the sport can be played more safely.

I recently spoke with the school’s head coach Eugene F. “Buddy” Teevens III to understand what he calls “the Dartmouth way.” A condensed and lightly edited version of our conversation is below:

Leana Wen: Your work to cut out live tackling during practice is quite a paradigm shift. What led you to make this move?

Buddy Teevens: The more contact you have, the more times you’re hit, the more you get hurt. We all practice way more than we play, and coaches control the practice field. If we limit contact during practice, that in itself will limit injuries.

People sometimes misconstrue what we do. We tackle every day in practice, but we tackle inanimate objects, not people. I tell players and prospects that they will never make a tackle on a Dartmouth player or be tackled by a Dartmouth player during their four years.

As a result, we have fewer injuries, and fewer concussions or subconcussive hits to the head than probably any other Division I team, and, I’d venture to guess, probably most teams in the country.

Wen: How do you teach tackling so that players are prepared to tackle during games, if they don’t practice tackling one another?

Teevens: You can teach the physical contact aspects without physically contacting a person. Players can tackle a dummy at full-speed without jeopardizing themselves. We use different variety of dummies including a robotic moving dummy called the “mobile virtual player,” which was developed here at Dartmouth with the school of engineering.

We do more tackling drills and break down each phase of the tackle. For example, to teach reaction after the contact, rather than having two guys run into each other and bang their heads, we put them together and then have them react. We practice smarter and enhance technique.

We went from missing a good bunch of tackles, like 15 to 20 a game, to just three to five. In my opinion, that’s because we tackle more than anybody else — we just don’t tackle each other.

Wen: When you instituted these changes, did you face a lot of resistance from the old guard who said, this is just not how we play football?

Teevens: Definitely. They say it’s a toughness thing and you suck it up. Injury is part of the game.

I’m trying to convince people that there’s another way to do it and it’s going to be safer in the long term. You end up with fewer players out with injuries, especially head injuries. A broken hand will heal. A damaged brain may not.

Wen: Your leadership was instrumental in getting the Ivy League to make the huge change in 2016 to eliminate all full-contact hitting during regular season practices. But the Ivy League still allows tackling during offseason practices, and none of the other college leagues have made similar reforms. Why not, and why have so few other colleges followed your lead?

Teevens: It’s really risky for the coaching staff to make a change like this, even though they know it’s in the best interest of their players’ health. They don’t want to risk losing on game day.

When I first made the change at Dartmouth, people said, “Yeah right, you’re an idiot, you’re gonna get fired.” The first season, I was apprehensive. I thought, man, I hope this works!

We’ve had a great deal of success. We’ve won three Ivy League championships and have been ranked nationally, offensively and defensively, for several years.

Real change is going to take conference offices saying that we’re going to do this together, everyone’s on the same page, and we are all going to eliminate live tackling in practice. Otherwise, the one-off risk is too high for a lot of teams. Because what everyone wants is wins, and wins are not measured by how many concussions they’ve prevented.

Wen: Have you had difficulties with recruiting players or is the Dartmouth Way a recruiting advantage?

Teevens: Kids think they’re going to live forever, but moms and dads seek us out. I talk to my players about how it’s great to have an athletic dream, but they have an academic dream, too. Very few of them will make it to the NFL. I say to them that when they’re done with football here, I want them to be doctors, lawyers, engineers and business leaders.

What we are doing is so simplistic and common sense; it’s just contrary to what people have done for decades. But unless we change the way we coach the game, we’re not going to have a game to coach.