They call it the Vike Tackle.
Members of the Santa Monica High School football team have been practicing a new way to take down opponents, one element of a series of changes as the sport evolves in an attempt to address safety concerns.
“Eliminating the head from our tackle is the best thing for our kids,” Vikings coach Ramsey Lambert wrote on Instagram this month, linking a video with several examples of players implementing the altered technique.
But what remains to be seen is whether on-field tweaks and amended off-field protocols can mitigate ever-growing fears about the risks of playing football. Safety activists have highlighted the dangers of traumatic head injuries and the prospect of long-term brain damage as reasons to question the sport, which is predicated on physical contact.
Even as officials change rules and bolster injury guidelines to make football safer, worries about concussions have prompted some athletes and their parents to leave the sport altogether.
“It’s obviously a concern,” CIF Southern Section Commissioner Rob Wigod said in an interview with the Daily Press. “I suppose it’s understandable with a lot of the information that’s been put out there. But I also think that football might be safer now than it may ever have been before.”
Participation in standard 11-player football at the high school level fell considerably in California last year, dropping nearly 3.5 percent to 100,358 from 103,976 a year earlier. That’s according to data compiled by the National Federation of State High School Associations, which tracks enrollment in sports and activities across the country.
Still, football remains the most popular high school sport in the nation. There were 1,085,182 participants in the 11-player version in 2014-15, according to NFHS data, down slightly from the 1,094,949 recorded a year earlier.
Wigod said the Southern Section has put into practice a variety of measures in recent years to address safety concerns. The section has ramped up guidelines for concussion protocols and beefed up its heat and hydration measures. It has also improved training among coaches and parents regarding sudden cardiac arrest.
Baseline tests for players at the beginning of each season have helped coaches and medical staffers identify concussion-related issues.
“Football, as we know, is a dangerous game,” Wigod said. “But I would still offer that the steps — the bylaws, the awareness, the protocols — in place today don’t even compare to how it had been 15 or 20 years ago. It’s an ongoing effort.”
The sport has also changed on the gridiron. Rules have been implemented to deter late hits and safeguard defenseless players. Blocks below the waist and helmet-to-helmet contact have also been discouraged through legislation.
“We’re going to be at the forefront of trying to keep students safe, and we’re not done with that,” he said. “We have made a lot of progress as an organization. …
“Hopefully people realize we’ve made a lot of improvement in the area of safety in the game of football. And hopefully that trend can turn in the other direction.”