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Ivy League Football Saw Large Reduction in Concussions After New Kickoff Rules

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A simple rule change in Ivy League football games has led to a significant drop in concussions, a study released this week found.

After the Ivy League changed its kickoff rules in 2016, adjusting the kickoff and touchback lines by just five yards, the rate of concussions per 1,000 kickoff plays fell to two from 11, according to the study, which was published Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Kickoffs, during which players sprint down the field and can knock into each other at full speed, had previously represented an outsize number of concussions.

The study comes amid a broader push to adjust kickoff rules at all levels of football and offers a strong indication that touchbacks can help reduce the risk of head injury in a sport grappling with the competing priorities of entertaining its audience and keeping its players safe.

“We see really compelling evidence that, indeed, introducing the experimental kickoff rule seems to be associated with a large reduction in concussions,” said Douglas Wiebe, the lead author of the study and the director of the Penn Injury Science Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

In 2015, kickoffs during Ivy League games accounted for 6 percent of all plays, but 21 percent of concussions, the study said. So Ivy League football coaches decided to change the rules to encourage kicks into the end zone.

Under the new system, teams kicked off from the 40-yard line, instead of the 35, and touchbacks started from the 20-yard line, rather than the 25.

The result? A spike in the number of touchbacks — and “a dramatic reduction in the rate of concussions,” Dr. Wiebe said.

The study looked at the rate of concussions over three seasons before the rule change (2013 to 2015) and two seasons after it (2016 to 2017). Researchers saw a larger reduction in concussions during kickoffs after the rule change than they did with other types of plays, like scrimmages and punts, which saw only a slight decline.

Dr. Wiebe, the lead author on the Ivy League study, said, “It’s great to see a success story here.” But he noted that plays other than kickoffs also result in concussions.

“We do need to step back and think about the rest of the game,” he said.



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