Greg M. Cooper/Associated Press
Yale linebacker Jesse Reising suffered a concussion against Harvard in 2010. In an effort to sharply reduce head injuries, the Ivy League will sharply reduce the number of allowable full-contact practices.
The changes, to be implemented this season, go well beyond the rules set by the N.C.A.A. and are believed to be more stringent than those of any other conference. The league will also review the rules governing men’s and women’s hockey, lacrosse and soccer to determine if there are ways to reduce hits to the head and concussions in those sports.
The new rules will be introduced as a growing amount of research suggests that limiting full-contact practices may be among the most practical ways of reducing brain trauma among football players. According to a study of three Division I college teams published last year in the Journal of Athletic Training, college players sustain more total hits to the head in practices than in games.
“Because of the seriousness of the potential consequences, the presidents determined the league needed to take proactive steps in protecting the welfare of our student-athletes,” said Robin Harris, the executive director of the Ivy League.
According to the new rules, teams will be able to hold only two full-contact practices per week during the season, compared with a maximum of five under N.C.A.A. guidelines. On the other days of the week, practices cannot include contact or live tackles, and no player may be “taken to the ground.”
During the preseason, teams will be able to hold only one full-contact session during two-a-day practices.
In the spring, the number of no-contact practices will be increased to four, from three. Over all, the number of practices with any kind of contact will be reduced 42 percent compared to N.C.A.A. limits.
An ad hoc committee that included college presidents, athletic directors, coaches, team physicians and other medical experts created the rules after a nearly yearlong investigation, the league said. Though a precise link has not been defined between playing football and long-term effects on brain functions, a growing body of data prompted the committee to move proactively.
The league is also asking football coaches to spend more time emphasizing and teaching techniques for avoiding helmet hits and show videos of permissible and nonpermissible hits.
Some coaches in the eight-team Ivy League have already been limiting the number of full-contact practice sessions, and rules are in place to examine players and remove them from games if they have sustained severe head hits or concussions. The new rules, however, will prevent existing or new coaches from adding full-contact practices, Harris said.
“I’m not sure there will be any dramatic changes, because the changes over the last few years for dealing with head hits have changed dramatically,” said Tim Murphy, the football coach at Harvard. “If we want young people to continue to fall in love with this great sport, we have to protect the athletes.”
Murphy said that reducing the amount of contact during the week will not only reduce the chance of head trauma, but also keep his players fresher on game days. Too much contact in practice can lead to diminishing returns, he said. Murphy added that he did not think that the stricter rules will have any impact on recruiting.
During a full season of practice, each team tracked in the study published by the Journal of Athletic Training averaged 2,500 total hits to the head that measured as significant blows (50 to 79 g’s of force) and about 300 hits to the head that were considered in the concussion-causing range (80 to 119 g’s). Each team experienced almost 200 practice collisions that measured above 120 g’s, which experts have likened to crashing a car into a concrete wall at 40 miles an hour.
The Ivy League does not have league-wide statistics on the number of concussions and head hits that occur during practices or games because the universities track them differently. But in more than 40 games involving Ivy League teams last year, eight penalties were assessed for helmet hits or blows to the head. Four other penalties were handed out for hits to a defenseless player. In all, 0.18 percent of plays involved significant helmet hits or hits to the head, according to the league’s data.
Several schools and conferences have re-evaluated their protocols concerning head injuries in recent years, although restrictions on practices like those being implemented by the Ivy League are considered rare, if not unprecedented.
“We worry about it, and it seems we should err on the side of caution,” said Margot Putukian, the director of athletic medicine at Princeton University. “My hope is that this will work at Penn State, too.”