Student Well-Being

ESPN Reporters Raise a Red Flag on ‘Heads Up Football’ Program

By Bryan Toporek — January 12, 2014 2 min read
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Two ESPN reporters released a report on Sunday raising concerns about a youth-football-safety program endorsed by the National Football League.

The NFL’s official youth affiliate, USA Football, launched a program called “Heads Up Football” in the summer of 2012 to improve player safety in youth football. The program teaches players to tackle without using their heads in an effort to reduce the risk of concussions, emphasizes the importance of proper helmet fit, and features certification for coaches.

However, not everyone interviewed by brothers Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada were sold on the viability of the Heads Up program, which is used by more than 2,700 youth leagues.

Nate Jackson, a former tight end and special teams player for the Denver Broncos, called the program “rather shameless.”

“I think it’s indicative of what the league’s motives are: profit, profit, profit,” he said.

Jake Plummer, a 10-year NFL quarterback and an ambassador for Heads Up Football, also acknowledged to the Fainaru brothers that the program won’t prevent all injuries:

It's a violent god damned game. Your kid is gonna get hurt. If you want to subject kids to football, don't be naïve and think little Johnny will be OK. I tell moms that I can't guarantee your son won't get hurt, but if they're going to play football, at least know what the coach is teaching them and know that these techniques will not ensure his safety but will help them play the game and maybe not get hurt as often."

The NFL sought to downplay its role with Heads Up Football when asked by the two reporters. Scott Hallenbeck, USA Football’s executive director, described the Heads Up Football program as a “USA Football program that the NFL has helped fund.” (The NFL is the sole funder of the program.)

For what it’s worth, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell attended the first meeting of the Heads Up Football Advisory Committee back in May 2013, which featured demonstrations of proper helmet fit and proper tackling techniques. The NFL’s first-ever Health and Safety report, released in Oct. 2012, also touted the league’s work with USA Football and the Heads Up Football program.

That level of involvement raised concerns from at least one former NFL player.

“The reality is you can’t put this in the hands of the NFL to govern,” said Michael Oriard, a former offensive lineman with the Kansas City Chiefs, to the Fainaru brothers. “Even with the best possible intentions, the corporate NFL has its needs and interests. You don’t let the tobacco industry regulate what’s safe in terms of smoking, but parents are kind of in that position here.”

Hallenbeck told the reporters that USA Football isn’t at the point yet “where we can definitively say Heads Up Football is actually scientifically working.” USA Football is evaluating 10 leagues, half of which use the Heads Up program, to gather data through the 2014 season.

The NFL’s pending concussion settlement may end up helping USA Football in that regard. Included in the settlement was a research and education fund of $10 million, at least part of which “will be used to support joint efforts by the NFL and NFL players to promote education and safety initiatives in youth football.”

Jackson told the Fainaru brothers that instead of downplaying the role of the head in tackling, the NFL should be up front with parents:

I think that it's important to have a conversation with parents in this country about really what they're risking with their kids. 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."


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A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.