Members of Congress brought the National Football League, National Hockey League, and an assortment of doctors and other youth sports advocates together for a hearing in front of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade on Thursday to discuss efforts to improve safety in youth sports. The hearing naturally focused largely on concussions, and in making the case that they are making efforts to improve safety in its sport, both the NFL and the top youth football organization in America talked about a program that could have big benefits in other areas but hasn’t yet proven its ability to reduce concussions.
USA Football, the organization founded in part by the NFL that oversees youth football across the country, has pushed its Heads Up Football program since 2012 as an effort to make football safer on a variety of fronts, from how it deals with heat and hydration issues to concussions. Both NFL senior vice president Jeffrey Miller and USA Football executive director Scott Hallenbeck talked about the program in their opening statements, and as part of his testimony, Hallenbeck directed the committee’s attention to a video touting the program’s benefits.
The NFL has also promoted the program in videos and public service announcements that have helped expand its enrollment to thousands of youth leagues across the country.
Heads Up Football has positive elements. As Miller noted in his testimony, its core requirements include “coaching certification, the addition of player safety coaches, proper equipment fitting, concussion and other health education, and parental involvement,” all of which are helpful for addressing different safety issues in the game. Its major selling point, though, is a new tackling technique that, as the name suggests, teaches kids to initiate contact with their heads up. Proponents of the program have argued that those techniques can help reduce concussions in youth football.
Heads Up has a list of major endorsers, from the NFL to the Centers for Disease Control to major college football conferences and medical organizations alike. It could get even more support soon, as USA Football is touting the program as a potential salve to football’s ills to anyone who will listen, including the NCAA.
“What we’re trying to push through this Heads Up football program is consistent teaching,” Hallenback said in the hearing. “We’re looking at every conceivable channel to communicate this program and help change behavior.”
Judging from the video shown in the hearing, some parents are taking Heads Up as a welcome development. “I think it’s really good that all the coaches are learning proper techniques to help kids do this right,” one parent says in the video.
Still, USA Football has acknowledged that there’s no evidence yet that Heads Up actually reduces concussions among young players. In fairness, it and the NFL often push Heads Up as a pilot program still in the test stage, and it’s true that there’s no real way to judge its effectiveness until it has been in place and its results can be tested. But right now, Heads Up as a concussion program is merely a theory, albeit one that nearly 1 million young football players are putting into practice, and the high-profile endorsements and the aggressive advocacy behind it make Heads Up sound like a program that is more proven than it actually is.
It’s also a theory many skeptics, including some former football players, have openly questioned. While it may be easy to teach new techniques, they say, the speed and physics of football make practicing it in games almost impossible.
“There’s increased emphasis on trying to clean up the game, you know, coaching guys up in ‘proper technique’ and all these catch phrases, and paying lip-service to everything,” NFL veteran Scott Fujita said about Heads Up in 2012 interview with Slate. “It’s just a brutal game, and I don’t think you can … ‘technique the game’ into becoming safer.
On top of that, Heads Up doesn’t address the hundreds and maybe thousands of subconcussive blows to the head football players sustain during a full season of practice and games even at the youth level. Current research shows that the accumulation of those hits is dangerous too, and it’s a given that those hits will happen no matter how players tackle. Football is, after all, about running into people, and as Sports On Earth’s Patrick Hruby noted in critiquing the program, it’s hard to make running into people safe.
Former NFL player Nate Jackson has an even more cynical view of Heads Up, saying USA Football and the NFL are using it to sell youth football — in which participation rates are declining — to parents who are concerned about the safety of the sport. In an interview with ESPN’s Outside The Lines, Jackson described the program as “a product that the NFL is selling” to “create the illusion that the game is safe or can be made safe.”
“I think that it’s important to have a conversation with parents in this country about really what they’re risking with their kids,” Jackson told ESPN. “Their kids are going to get hurt. Not necessarily brain injuries, but they’re going to get banged up. It’s a violent game. And their head is always in play. You can’t remove the head from play in the football field. The only way to remove the head from the tackle is to remove your body from the field.”
Pieces of the NFL’s concussion efforts in youth football are laudable. It has pushed laws at the state-level to implement education and treatment standards for high school athletes, and it, along with other major sports leagues, endorsed legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate last year that would require states to adopt those standards. Some NFL teams have helped pay to put medical trainers on the sidelines of high school football games in their states. The NFL has also partnered to fund some research as part of its concussion settlement with former players, though it could certainly do more, given that experts say more research and proper medical care are both important for assessing the impact of concussions on young athletes and treating and managing them when they occur.
Proper tackling technique is important for reducing other forms of major injuries, and it’s possible if unlikely that Heads Up may one day prove its skeptics wrong and show itself as an effective program for reducing concussions. But Jackson is almost certainly right. It seems overly hopeful to think that we can substantially reduce brain injuries in football — youth or otherwise — by tweaking techniques. The game as it exists is predicated on contact and collisions, and concussions and other head injuries will unfortunately remain an inherent result of that. On many fronts, Heads Up may be, as Miller said in his testimony, “an appropriate way to teach the game.” When it comes to concussions, though, it still deserves far more skepticism than it received from Congress today.