With all the controversy surrounding the link between traumatic brain injury and professional football, the National Football League (NFL) has been adopting certain initiatives over the last couple of years in an attempt to reassure the country that their national pastime is becoming safer for kids and athletes. Together with USA Football—youth football’s governing body—the league endorsed a new educational program called “Heads Up Football” back in 2015. The program involves a series of in-person and online courses for coaches to learn new safety procedures and proper tackling drills to reduce the risk of head injury. The NFL and USA Football said that the program reduced the number of concussions by an estimated 30 percent and injuries by 76 percent.
One year after its publication, the New York Times reviewed the study on Heads Up Football and found that the claims of dramatically reduced injuries and concussions were nowhere to be found. Last week, the Times published an article uncovering the latest fumble by the NFL and its heavily promoted program. The chairman of the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, Elliot F. Kaye, worked with both the NFL and USA Football on improving helmet safety. He told the Times:
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…It does not appear that this met that standard.
According to the article, both groups asked Datalys—an Indianapolis-based firm that handles all of the NCAA’s injury research—to monitor injury rates among six youth leagues that used the Heads Up Football practices in the fall of 2014. The reported results of the initiative, which boasted the drastically reduced rate of injuries, did not match with the published results—creating conflict as to whether or not the program is actually beneficial.
As the 2016 season approaches, the faulty pronouncements about the research continue to be cited by youth programs and football officials as evidence that Heads Up Football makes football safer, especially regarding concussions. During a high school sports conference in Alabama last week, a coach presented a glowing slide show about the program to fellow coaches and athletic directors, unaware that many of the numbers and statements were not supported by the data.
The question of whether or not kids should even be allowed to play football was raised in December 2015, in our print publication Brain in the News by neuroscientist and Dana Scientific Advisor Guy McKhann. To learn more about the link between football and traumatic head injury, read our past blog posts. For the full New York Times article, click here.
– Seimi Rurup