The NFL regular season is more than half over, the collegiate season is three-quarters complete and it is already well into playoff time for high schoolers in Illinois and Indiana.
Consequently, it is time to look ahead to next year — by looking at the past, both distant and recent.
More than 100 years ago — in 1905 — football was going through another existential safety-related crisis. Serious injuries and fatalities were rampant. When the season ended, California, Columbia, Duke, Northwestern and Stanford dropped the sport.
However, before the major powers of the time, Harvard and Yale, could follow suit, President Teddy Roosevelt summoned the coaches from both schools to the White House in December. It was the second such football-related summit at the White House that year.
The result was the formation of an organizing body that would eventually become the NCAA. Rules were made that would drastically change the game in 1906: the forward pass was legalized, play stopped when a ball carrier hit the ground, the neutral zone was created and penalties were instituted for unsportsmanlike play.
Today, the Ivy League is no longer a football power conference. The Ivies do not even participate in postseason play. However, tradition dies hard. The annual season-ending contest between Harvard and Yale is still simply known as “The Game.”
In short, football remains entrenched among member schools. League coaches and athletic administrators aim to keep it that way. Consequently, they have embraced changes they see as making the game safer.
In 2016, the Ivy League banned full contact in practice once games are being played. In games, the kickoff was moved from 35-yard line to the 40 in hopes of increasing the number of touchbacks. Both changes were intended to reduce injuries, specifically concussions.
No data has been published yet regarding the decreased contact in practice but earlier this month, the consequences of the kickoff change were released and they were compelling.
The league already knew that kickoffs comprised only 6 percent of plays in games but accounted for 23.4 percent of concussions.
As a result of the rule change, the number of touchbacks more than tripled and concussions dropped from an average of six per year between 2013-2015 to zero last year.
Approved as an experiment by the NCAA, the kickoff rule change has remained in place this year. If the results end up the same as last year, the rule should be instituted across college football. It is doubtful any other rule change could provide a bigger bang for the buck, largely eliminating nearly one-quarter of concussions suffered in games.
Better yet, why not boot the kickoff altogether?
That is the essential intent of moving the kickoff from the 35 to the 40. So why go through with the charade?
MLB changed the intentional walk rule this year, eliminating the necessity of sailing the four outside-the–zone lobs by pitcher to catcher.
The sky didn’t fall. A boring and time-consuming part of the game was dropped and baseball purists kept coming to the park.
If all levels of football were to eliminate the kickoff — as Pop Warner did in its three youngest age divisions a year ago — the game’s most dangerous play would disappear but the fans would not.