“At first, I didn’t know what to think,” Wesley Dalton ‘23, running back and cornerback said when Riverdale announced kickoffs would be eliminated from high school football games. “I’d heard kickoffs were a fun part of the game, but they can be pretty chaotic and dangerous.” Wesley is right: an ivy league study found that kickoffs account for only 6% of plays but 21% of concussions. “Once the season started, though, it didn’t seem like too much was lost,” Wesley said.

With a commitment to the safety of student athletes, Riverdale Athletics Director John Pizzi initiated these rule changes at the end of the Fall 2018 season. This was in response to a variety of factors that have impacted the game on multiple levels, including studies which have revealed a link between concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease thought to be caused by repetitive head injuries. This research has inspired reforms within the NFL and at individual schools intended to make the game safer for athletes.

I wanted to change football in America.

John Pizzi, Riverdale Director of Athletics

Mr. Pizzi reached out to his trusted colleague Dr. Chris Nowinski, Co-Founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation (CLF), which has had a longstanding association with Riverdale, to enlist his support to reduce head injuries in all sports at Riverdale, starting with football. “I told Chris I wanted to change football in America,” Mr. Pizzi said. “I wasn’t sure if he thought I was crazy or if it was even feasible. But, he said, ‘I love it. Let’s do it.’ ”

Thanks to financial support from the Mack family, Riverdale has been able to partner with the CLF to develop a set of revised rules and guidelines that will hopefully inspire similar changes in high school athletic conferences across the country. According to Mr. Pizzi, “the ultimate goal was to create the safest high school football league in the country.”  

The Metropolitan Independent Football League (MIFL), which includes Riverdale and 13 other New York City-area independent schools, is the first high school sports league in the country to eliminate kickoffs and on-side kicks, among other rule changes. The hope is that by making changes to how games are played and practices are managed, more schools will be able to prevent concussions and other serious injuries.

The MIFL implemented three major rule changes for the Fall 2021 season:

  • Eliminated kickoffs and on-side kicks. 
  • Limited full-contact practices to six hours total during preseason and 15 minutes per week during the regular season. 
  • Required teams provide medical transportation to and from the field for injured players and have a doctor and EMT/ambulance present at all games.

Across the MIFL, these rule changes have resulted in a 33% decrease in concussions between 2019 and 2021. During this same timeframe, the league has experienced an 18% increase in player participation. Riverdale has experienced similar changes in both player safety and participation rates.

These changes have already led to increased safety for student athletes and allow football to thrive at the high school level.

Dominic A.A. Randolph, Riverdale Head of School

Head of School Dominic A.A. Randolph praised the cooperative effort. “At Riverdale, we are always looking for research to inform the way we are innovating education,” he said. “We deeply appreciate the Mack family for supporting this research; our athletic department led by John Pizzi and football coach Brendon Connolly; our peer schools in the MIFL who approved the changes; and the Concussion Legacy Foundation led by Dr. Chris Nowinski who applied the research to practice. These changes have already led to increased safety for student athletes and allow football to thrive at the high school level.”

PLUSSED, Riverdale’s in-house Reasearch and Development studio, provided additional support for this project.