Heads Up: Not a Silver Bullet, But Part of the Solution

A New York Times investigation finds that there may be flaws in the National Football Leagues conclusion that their Heads Up program has reduced concussions. After going through the detailed data of the study that the NFL relied on, the Times concludes that the program had little impact and that other changes in the Pop Warner program actually were the cause of the overall changes.

Rather than looking at Heads Up Football leagues in one category, the paper instead split them into two groups: those that did or did not also belong to Pop Warner Football, a division of youth leagues that has added its own rules to mitigate injuries. Pop Warner leagues have disallowed certain head-on blocking and tackling drills and drastically reduced full-contact practice time, measures that were not a part of U.S.A. Football’s program.

As it turned out, only leagues that adhered to Pop Warner’s rules saw a meaningful drop in concussions. Leagues that used Heads Up Football alone actually saw slightly higher concussion rates, although that uptick was not statistically significant. The previously reported drops were clearly driven by a league’s affiliation with Pop Warner, not Heads Up Football.

It’s hard to argue with the data and there may be multiple interpretations. However, over the past several years I have had the opportunity to speak to multiple people involved with the Heads Up program and to sit in on presentations about it as well. And it seems unlikely that the program has had no impact.

But it’s also true that the program by itself is not enough. Kids need to learn how to hit but coaches and parents need to learn how to detect a concussion. Here in Fairfax County, high schools have reduced the amount of time kids are hitting in practice. There are trainers at the school during practice and on the sideline during games. Parents and athletes have to take an online concussion education test. Players take baseline tests each year.

Perhaps the mistake of the NFL is to believe that there’s a silver bullet. There isn’t. But Heads Up is an important part of the solution. One that has spread to include other sports as well. And as it has spread, it has helped educate rec players of all ages and their parents. It has spread the word and helped make things safer.

And perhaps that’s the mistake the New York Times makes. There is no silver bullet. And they shouldn’t expect one. Instead of attacking the NFL, we should recognize that (regardless of what may have happened in the past) they are actively trying to be part of the solution.

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