In 2016, the NCAA introduced a new kickoff rule on an experimental basis for eight private, Ivy League universities. League coaches recommended the change when 2015 data showed that kickoffs made up only 6 percent of plays but accounted for 21 percent of concussions. Kickoffs are the only play "where players on both teams have the space to get up to full speed," potentially risking injury from a head-on tackle, noted the lead author of a recent study.
The change? The kickoff line was moved five yards from the 35-yard line to the 40. Also, the touchback line was moved from the 25-yard line to the 20. The idea behind moving the kickoff line was to get more kickoffs to land in the end zone, reducing returns.
The new rule seems to be working. According to a study of the rule's effects, in the two seasons since the change was introduced, the average concussion rate plummeted from nearly 11 concussions per 1,000 kickoffs in the prior three years to only 2 in these two seasons. At the same time, touchbacks jumped from nearly 18 percent over the prior three years to nearly 50 percent since the new rule. By comparison, concussion rates during other plays dropped only slightly after the rule change, indicating that the new rule was having a targeted effect on kickoff-related concussions.
Since the discovery that multiple, otherwise non-serious concussions can result in chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), football at all levels has been taking steps to reduce concussion risks. This has included attempts to reduce the frequency of kickoff returns among other changes.
For example, Dartmouth College's coach proactively eliminated tackling at most practices long before the Ivy League passed a rule to do so. He also created a drill dummy with robotic features for use in tackling drills.
"The Ivy League is really leading the charge into bringing about rule changes to make football safer," said a concussion expert from Boston University who was not involved in the study of the new kickoff line.
Although the new kickoff rule was experimental, the results of the study are likely to persuade the Ivy League to make it a formal policy, according to the study's lead author.
It seems less likely to take hold within the NFL, which tried moving its kickoff line to the 35-yard line from the 30 in 2011. The league's analysis of the rule indicated that injuries from kickoff plays dropped, but head injuries overall did not.
The study on the Ivy League's rule was paid for by the Ivy League and the Big Ten and appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association.