Ivy League football limits full-contact practices to reduce brain injury

    New rules for Ivy League football programs will limit teams to two full-contact practices per week once the season starts in August. That is down from the five days a week the NCAA allows. The move is an attempt to cut down on mild traumatic brain injuries, which a growing body of research indicates may lead to permanent brain damage.

    “What we were trying to do is see if we can minimize the amount of potential contact and collisions without changing the game of football as everybody knows it,” said Al Bagnoli, University of Pennsylvania football head coach. Bagnoli sat on the Ivy League committee that devised the new regulations.

    Emerging research suggests that concussions and even multiple sub-concussive hits that do not leave a player unconscious may contribute to permanent brain damage.

    Bagnoli said Penn football captain Owen Thomas’ suicide and his post-mortem diagnosis with early-stage chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) demonstrated the seriousness of the problem among athletes. The degenerative brain disorder has previously been linked to depression and suicide among NFL players. Thomas’ diagnosis added momentum to an already ongoing conversation among Ivy League presidents and coaches about new rules to limit hard hits.

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    Bagnoli said he hopes the Ivies can be leaders in protecting their players.

    “Everybody else to my knowledge follows the NCAA guidelines,” Bagnoli said. “So hopefully this will be a model that people will look at and say, OK, this may make sense.”

    ‘Err on the side of caution’

    The new rules also limit teams to two full-pads practices a day during summer “two-a-days,” and reduce the number of full-contact practices during spring training.

    Robin Harris, who as executive director of the Ivy League reviews helmet-to-helmet hits to determine if they are intentional or reckless, said she has been told to “err on the side of caution” even more than last year.

    “Last year, if it was a close call I didn’t suspend,” Harris said. “This year, if it’s a close call, I will be suspending.”

    The new standards are stricter than high schools in the state must adhere to under Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association rules, which do not limit the number of full-contact practice days during the regular season.

    Philip Schatz, a psychology professor at St. Joseph’s University, said he hopes leagues at all level of play take notice of the move by the Ivies to limit hits during practice time.

    “It’s not just the concussive events, but it’s these sub-concussive impacts that take place throughout a game and through a career, which is made up of more practices than games, that are really a culprit,” Schatz said. “Same with boxers … it’s not just what happens in a bout, it’s the sparring and the multiple sub-concussive blows that occur over a career that are altering brain physiology.”

    Schatz’s research has found the cognitive impacts of multiple concussions last for months in high school athletes.

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