Kickoffs have long been a uniquely dangerous part of football. They produce three to five times as many concussions as ordinary plays from scrimmage, depending on the league. In 2016, the Ivy League tried to reduce that toll with a minor rule change: moving the kickoff line from the 35-yard line to the 40-yard line, and shifting the touchback line from the 25-yard line to the 20-yard line. The intent was to increase the number of touchbacks (in which the player receiving the ball opts to kneel in the end zone to begin the ensuing possession at the touchback line, rather than attempting to advance it himself).
The experimental gambit seems to have paid off. In a research letter published in JAMA last November, a team led by Douglas Wiebe, a professor of epidemiology at the Perelman School of Medicine, compared the incidence of kickoff concussions before and after the rule change. They found that the rate of concussions dropped by more than 80 percent in the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
“The national conversation on concussions that occur in football can be informed by scientific research aimed at making sports safer,” said Wiebe, who co-leads the Ivy League’s concussion surveillance system. “We’ve found that this simple yet strategic policy change helps sustain the quality of the game, while also making it safer for student athletes.”