In February 2015, USA Football touted the preliminary findings of a study from the Datalys Center for Sports Injury Research and Prevention that suggested youth-football players who participated in leagues which used its “Heads Up Football” program had 76 percent fewer injuries than those in other youth-football leagues.
On Wednesday, Alan Schwarz of the New York Times poured cold water on that narrative.
After digging into the full findings, which were published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine in July 2015, Schwarz found “Heads Up Football showed no demonstrable effect on concussions during the study, and significantly less effect on injuries overall, than USA Football and the [National Football League] have claimed in settings ranging from online materials and Congressional testimony.”
According to Schwarz, the Datalys researchers split Heads Up Football leagues into two categories: those that belonged to Pop Warner Football, which had implemented restrictions in 2012 on the amount of full-contact practice coaches were allowed to conduct and banned certain tackling drills, and those that didn’t. Only the former group had a “meaningful drop in concussions,” per Schwarz, which suggests “the previously reported drops were clearly driven by a league’s affiliation with Pop Warner, not Heads Up Football.”
Heads Up Football, which aims to refine the tackling and blocking methods that youth-football coaches teach their players, does not limit the amount of full-contact practices allowed within a given week. The Datalys study authors thus suggested that the leagues affiliated with both Pop Warner and Heads Up Football were more effective at preventing injuries because of Pop Warner’s contact restriction combined with Heads Up Football’s educational components. They suggested “a comprehensive coaching education program combined with practice guidelines limiting player-to-player contact may help lower injury rates,” although they noted that in lieu of contact restrictions in practice, a coaching-education program could also help.
According to Schwarz, non-Pop Warner leagues that utilized Heads Up Football did experience a 63 percent drop in practice injuries, but when combined with in-game injuries, the decline amounted to roughly 45 percent. As he noted, that’s far less than the 76 percent that USA Football touted from the preliminary findings of the Datalys study.
“USA Football erred in not conducting a more thorough review with Datalys to ensure that our data was up to date,” Scott Hallenbeck, the executive director of USA Football, told Schwarz in an email. “We regret that error.”
Schwarz isn’t the first reporter to raise a red flag about the effectiveness of Heads Up Football. In 2014, ESPN’s Steven Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada spoke with NFL veterans who expressed skepticism about the program. Nate Jackson, a former tight end and special teams player for the Denver Broncos, called it “rather shameless,” while Jake Plummer, a 10-year NFL quarterback and a then-ambassador for Heads Up Football, said:
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.
The big takeaway here: There’s no silver bullet when it comes to eliminating injury risk in youth football or other contact sports. Heads Up Football won’t prevent all injuries, nor will restrictions on contact in practice. Unless contact becomes completely banned in practices and games, sports will contain some inherent form of risk. A conjunction of policy changes—from reduction in contact allowed in practice, mandatory coach education and tweaks to players’ techniques—are youth sports’ best bet when it comes to lowering injury rates.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.