Beginning in 2016, all high school football coaches in Oregon will be required to enroll in USA Football’s Heads Up Football program, which aims to make football safer by teaching proper playing techniques.
According to a statement on USA Football’s website, the Oregon School Activities Association is the first high school state association to mandate coaches’ enrollment in the Heads Up Football initiative, which launched back in 2012. The program includes a reinforcement of proper blocking and tackling techniques that aim to reduce head contact, along with tutorials on proper equipment fitting, concussion recognition and response, and heat and hydration.
Beginning in 2016, each of the state association’s 249 football-playing high schools will be required to designate one Player Safety Coach who will be responsible for ensuring Heads Up Football principles are being properly applied. The OSAA is recommending, but not mandating, that all football programs enroll in Heads Up Football during this upcoming school year, one season before it becomes mandatory.
“In our ongoing effort to minimize risks in the sport, we are pleased to partner with USA Football and implement Heads Up Football,” said OSAA executive director Tom Welter in a statement. “This program will ensure that all coaches, players, and parents will receive consistent technique training and make the game as safe as possible.”
Questions remain about the efficacy of the Heads Up Football program, however. In January 2014, two ESPN reporters released a report raising concerns about the initiative, especially considering its ties to the National Football League. Scott Hallenbeck, USA Football’s executive director, described Heads Up Football to the two ESPN reporters as a “USA Football program that the NFL has helped fund.” (The NFL is the lone funder of the program.)
Jake Plummer, a 10-year former NFL quarterback and an ambassador for Heads Up Football, also conceded to ESPN that the program won’t prevent all injuries:
It's a violent, goddamned 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."
At the time, Hallenbeck told ESPN that USA Football isn’t at the point yet “where we can definitively say Heads Up Football is actually scientifically working.”
Welter notably isn’t selling the OSAA’s involvement with Heads Up Football as a cure-all to football’s safety issues. Saying the program will help “make the game as safe as possible” is far different than claiming it will “make the game safe.” As Plummer said, so long as any form of head-to-head contact exists—not to mention subconcussive impacts—playing football will carry some degree of risk for student-athletes.
To Oregon’s credit, though, educating coaches about proper mechanics and safety issues certainly won’t hurt.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.