HUNTINGTON — In football, “decleating” an opponent — to knock them off their feet — is often cheered just as loud as a touchdown, and can just as quickly energize a team.
But a big hit elicits a notably different type of response: not the pure jubilant applause that follows a score, big gain or third-down stop, but a sound that’s an expression of morbid entertainment as it is rooted in cheering — an appreciation of violent athleticism flexed between competitors.
But when the crowds quiet and the season ends, the consequences of those high-velocity hits could impact athletes’ health for the rest of their lives beyond sports. Repeated concussions, chiefly, have been shown to cause permanent damage to the human brain, leading to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — most prominently in football players.
The concussion epidemic in football prompted deeper scrutiny and a handful of rule changes over the past 10 years. Once encouraged by coaches decades earlier, helmet-to-helmet hits are now penalized in both the NFL and the NCAA, and serious cases are cause for ejection.
While these changes have been praised for making the game safer, some fans quietly complained the new rules detract from the violent nature of football, one aspect that helped make it popular in the first place.
Two faculty members at Marshall University’s School of Kinesiology have proposed a way to make football even safer, without watering it down, in a four-year study that compared football-style tackling to rugby-style tackling.
The two are Dr. Zach Garrett, director of Marshall’s athletic training program, and Dr. Suzanne Konz, director of the biomechanics program, whose study found rugby-style tackling (wrapping up an opponent with their arms and bringing them to the ground) exerts far less force than typical football tackles (knocking an opponent down by sheer forward force).
The study examined football players from nearby Kentucky Christian University and Marshall University’s rugby team in both practice and game situations. It concluded the rugby players sustained far less force to the head — both linear and rotational — and fewer head impacts in general.
The study proposes that requiring a football player to physically wrap up an opponent would mean significantly safer contact — and fewer injuries — than the current penalties alone, all without detracting from the thrill of the game.
“Zach and I love football; I’m so excited for football season, but I want to make it safe for athletes,” Konz said alongside Garrett, chatting in a cavernous, bright white research room in the depths of Marshall’s Gullickson Hall.
“It’s not about limiting their ability to play or change rules; it’s about figuring out a way to make it safer for them.”
Football vs. rugby
The easiest way to define a rugby-style tackle is how football players are already taught to tackle, as Garrett described: head up and out of the way, leading with the shoulder and attacking the opponent’s hips with their arms and shoulders. These fundamentals, however, frequently take a back seat in favor of a brutal collision in the heat of the play — reinforced by applause and a sense of domination.
But few argue that rugby is any less violent than football, and some would contend its brutality exceeds the latter. In rugby, players must wrap up an opponent to the ground — naturally decelerating in the process — in order to gain possession of the ball. High-impact hits without wrapping can be penalized — especially if the head is involved.
The pace of play also differs and likewise contributes to the impact of hits. Like soccer, rugby play is fluid and only stops completely at halftime. Football stops at each play, allowing players up to 40 seconds (the full NFL play clock) to rest, reset and then create momentum before colliding with opponents.
Konz noted the reason running backs and linebackers stand a few yards behind the line of scrimmage is to build that full head of steam between the start of a play and the collision — like two trains on a single track, as she put it.
“They’re basically just missiles launching themselves to try to impede the ball by blunt force; they’re not actively trying to take the ball carrier down,” Konz said.
“So it’s not necessarily a rule change, because that’s just lazy tackling,” Garrett added. “You can still get those types of violent hits by wrapping up.”
Head collisions have long been discouraged in rugby, naturally, because players wear only token padded caps or no helmets at all. While a football player’s body is far more shielded than a rugby player’s, football helmets are designed to prevent a skull fracture, not a concussion, Garrett noted. The vast majority of players likely also wear helmets that are too loose to be as effective as they can be, he added, evident by how easily players can slip them off their heads.
“The helmet doesn’t stop the brain from moving inside the skull,” Konz said. “There’s an idea that it may lessen the forces the brain encounters, but it’s still not stopping the brain from moving.”
Selling a fundamental skill, and future research
Youth football players have long been taught to tackle by what the study defines as rugby-style. Requiring they apply those safe fundamentals, Garrett said, would therefore not detract from the game.
“I don’t want to see football turn into flag football; I don’t,” he said. “But I think you can make a tweak — force people to wrap up — and still have the same game, just made safer.”
That change would require leagues to enforce it, coaches to demand it and players to perform it. Some have — most notably Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, the first in the NFL to begin drilling players on rugby-style tackles around five years ago as a safer and more effective way to bring down a ball carrier.
Carroll’s methods eventually trickled to other NFL teams and down to the collegiate level, and was the inspiration for the Marshall study, Garrett and Konz said.
But perfecting the rugby-style for game day requires full-contact tackling in practice, something many football programs simply don’t do, Garrett added. Most practices limit player-on-player contact to little more than bumps, and tackles are often practiced on dummies.
It’s no substitute for bringing down a moving human body, he added, and puts players at an inherent risk for injury.
“If you don’t actively practice something, how are you going to be able to do it on game day?” Garrett shook his head.
Garrett and Konz presented their study at the American Academy of Neurology Sports Concussion Conference in Indianapolis in July. Their conclusions were no shock to the sports medicine world, but the study is the first to compare the mechanical forces generated in rugby and football.
That’s a geographical schism more than anything, Konz explained. While there are likely hundreds of studies on football in the United States, nearly all the studies on rugby come from New Zealand and Australia — where rugby is king and “football” refers to what Americans call soccer.
Until this study, no research had paired and compared tackling in the two fairly similar sports.
The study will continue to look at the forces encountered in the two sports with gradually more players, but will include bloodwork taken from participants to study what happens in an athlete’s blood following a concussion. The driving theory is that examining blood proteins following a concussion may lead to an early diagnosis of CTE, a neurodegenerative disease found in about 30 percent of individuals with multiple head injuries. A still inconclusively understood disease, CTE currently can only be confirmed in an autopsy.
“As this study continues, I think we’re going to keep coming to the same conclusion,” Garrett said. “I really do.”