The NFL’s Heads Up Program

John Madden has spoken out against the NFL’s Heads Up Program. The program’s goal is to teach “better and safer” football to America’s youth, by teaching better tackling techniques and through a certification and training program for those who coach youth football. Madden expressed his doubts at a roundtable during Hall of Fame weekend, noting that the 90-minute training program isn’t nearly enough time to impart the wisdom necessary to ensure that coaches can pass along sound techniques.

Madden also said it was wrong for young kids to be playing tackle football at all:

“I’m a firm believer that there’s no way that a six-year-old should have a helmet on and learn a tackling drill,” Madden said.  “There’s no way.  Or a seven-year-old or an eight-year-old.  They’re not ready for it.  Take the helmets off kids. . . .  Start at six years old, seven years old, eight years old, nine years old.  They don’t need a helmet.  They can play flag football.  And with flag football you can get all the techniques.  Why do we have to start with a six-year-old who was just potty trained a year ago and put a helmet on him and tackle? . . .  We’ll eventually get to tackling.”

I haven’t listened to every minute of the show the past two mornings, but Mike and Mike spent a lot of time yesterday – as they have previously – discussing a play in 1989 in which Golic intercepted a Troy Aikman pass and was criticized by John Madden, who was calling that game. The shtick is funny – Golic rants about how he was playing correct assignment football, while the legendary analyst Madden was incorrectly bashing him for just “standing” there when the pass happened to hit him in the gut. I mention this because the panel discussion this weekend at which Madden aired his criticism of Heads Up included Mike Golic’s wife, Chris. Chris Golic is intimately involved with Heads Up and Mike and Mike have praised the program for years.

But in their banter about the panel discussion, the only development they saw fit to mention was that Chris confronted Madden, apparently before the roundtable began, about her husband longstanding beef with how Madden analyzed the now quarter-of-a-century old play. Again, I didn’t hear every minute of the show, but of the substantial chunk I did, there was zero mention of Madden’s comments on Heads Up.

This is a notable omission. And it’s not just Madden. There are larger questions about the very possibility of playing football safely. Last year, Patrick Hruby wrote in detail about why it’s a pipe dream.

For all the talk about cracking down on devastating hits and mitigating the impact of high speed collisions, research suggests that what passes for normal contact in football, endured over and over again, might have the most lasting effects. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in 2009, while describing then novel research by UNC’s Kevin Guskiewicz tracking head trauma during practice:

When we think about football, we worry about the dangers posed by the heat and the fury of competition. Yet the HITS data suggest that practice—the routine part of the sport—can be as dangerous as the games themselves. We also tend to focus on the dramatic helmet-to-helmet hits that signal an aggressive and reckless style of play. Those kinds of hits can be policed. But what sidelined the U.N.C. player, the first time around, was an accidental and seemingly innocuous elbow, and none of the blows he suffered that day would have been flagged by a referee as illegal. Most important, though, is what Guskiewicz found when he reviewed all the data for the lineman on that first day in training camp. He didn’t just suffer those four big blows. He was hit in the head thirty-one times that day. What seems to have caused his concussion, in other words, was his cumulative exposure.

There’s been a lot of talk recently at the Mother Ship about the whether the culture of “embrace debate” has gone too far, in the wake of Stephen A.’s ill-considered remarks about domestic violence. But the potentially serious peril of playing competitive football, of confronting the possibility that it can’t, in Hruby’s words, be made innocuous, is a subject often seemingly better ignored. Greenie and Golic had a lot of fun talking about how Madden made the wrong call in 1989. Better that than pondering whether he’s making the right call now.



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