NFL, Heads Up Football Safety Claims May Be Misleading

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

Although more parents are making the decision to keep their children away from tackle football because of short- and long-term safety issues, the National Football League, along with a host of other groups, is reassuring them that ongoing reforms are making the game safer. The results of an investigation by the New York Times, however, disagree.

One change receiving the most attention and backing is Heads Up Football, a measure that includes a series of live and online courses to teach coaches improved safety procedures and enhanced tackling drills, reports Alan Schwarz for The New York Times.

The new program is backed by the NFL and funded by the organization. The NFL and youth football's governing body, USA Football, which manages the series of seminars, have sold Heads Up Football to thousands of parents and leagues as a way to protect kids who play the sport. The groups have shared an independent study and have claimed the program has reduced injuries by 76% and concussions by approximately 30%.

The New York Times discovered that the study, published July 2015, showed that Heads Up Football did not lessen the number of concussions and had no decisive effect on injuries in general, even though the NFL and USA Football have claimed in online materials and in front of Congress that it has.

"Everybody who is involved in trying to improve the safety of youth sports, when parents such as myself are so desperate to have effective solutions, has the responsibility to make sure that any information that they are putting out to the public is accurate, is comprehensive, and is based on legitimate science," said Elliot F. Kaye, the chairman of the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, who has worked with U.S.A. Football and the N.F.L. on improving helmet safety. "It does not appear that this met that standard."

But officials in USA Football and the NFL said they were not aware that their claims concerning Heads Up Football were unsupported by the study. USA Football Executive Director Scott Hallenbeck said parents and supporters would be notified. NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy said the league would do the same.

Both organizations said that the data and conclusions were preliminary results provided by the Datalys Center for Sports Injury Research and Prevention months before the study was published. The lead authors, Thomas Dompier and Zachary Kerr, admitted that they had not informed USA Football of the final results until last month.

Nick Marmo is part of a 200-member group that travels from city-to-city as part of the USA Football's Heads Up Football program. Dan Sostek, writing for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, says a clinic took place in Pittsburgh attended by 12 coaches from high schools and local youth teams.

Marmo is a former Penn State offensive lineman and a native of New Castle, Pennsylvania. He told the assembled group that "smart tackling" and good response can be difficult to promote because of coaches' desire not to strip the game of its physicality. But coaches often do not see the after-effects, says Marma.

The official site for the NFL's Houston Texans says:

"Football safety doesn't start with the players. It starts with the coaches."

A safer environment on the field is directly related to coaches having the correct knowledge that they can model to achieve the proper techniques for players.

And that is what health and safety experts from Houston Methodist, Children's Hospital and USA Football taught 250 youth and high school coaches recently at NRG Stadium and Houston Methodist Training Center, according to KSPR-TV.

Coaches were instructed about heads up tackling, properly fitting equipment, blocking techniques, heat and hydration recognition, concussion awareness, and sudden cardiac arrest. For the fourth year, the Houston Texans Foundation has contributed $40,000 in grant funds to youth and high school football teams in the area.

Each coach who attended the training session is eligible to make an application for a Houston Texans equipment grant for as much as $10,000.

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