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The NFL Wants You to Blame Its Players for the Brain Trauma Crisis

The "Heads Up" program is supposed to make football safer, but all it's doing is shifting blame onto players for the NFL's brain trauma crisis.
January 21, 2015, 5:05pm
Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

To be a true football player, you've got to learn to ram your head into your opponent. Or at least that's what 16-year-old Donnovan Hill claims his Pop Warner coaches told him. Today, three years after the last time he did just that, he's paralyzed and suing both those same coaches and the national Pop Warner organization in Los Angeles Superior Court.

Hill's lawsuit is important, yet not for the future of football. Thanks to the "Heads Up" safety initiative that the National Football League began in 2012, thousands of youth coaches across America will now have official certification stating they coached kids to avoid such hits. Going forward, if a player collides helmet-to-helmet with another player, he will have no one to blame but himself. He will have failed the sport's fundamentals. He will have failed football.


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USA Football's "Heads Up" program, which is rolled into an insurance plan, is as much about changing how football is defined as about how it is played. It's the former that the sport's future hinges on. Regardless of what real people do in a real football game, if you can point to a platonic ideal, to a perfect wrap tackle with one's helmet jammed under the ball-carrier's armpit, to clean and clear rules on how football should be played, then football itself is off the hook.

Hate the player, not the game.

Football's defenders will say anything to save the game from the fragile humans who play it. For a long time, when things went wrong, it was common to fault conditioning. In 1922, a Toronto paper blamed injuries on lazy players who "evaded training rules." Likewise, a trainer in 1961 said a boy who dies while playing the sport usually is "one who tried to take short cuts in his training." The same year, Army's coach wrote a Chicago Tribune article titled, "Should Your Boy Play Football?" The answer was yes, because those dead kids blew it by not being "properly conditioned."

Screenshot taken from

Other times, it has been a problem of how and where the game is played. In 1931, people blamed deaths on "incompetency, negligence, frugal educators, unprincipled coaches and savage technique." In discussing fatalities that occurred the next year, a writer opined that "most of them occurred in high school games and unorganized play, and [so] attributing many of them to football is unfair to the game." This is actually a common defense--that football is apparently not something to be played at home. And if its problems didn't stem from lack of fundamentals, then they originated from the wrong mentality. Early in that same 1930s crisis, an Atlanta Constitution columnist wrrote, "It is not the fault of the game but the spirit with which it is played." It's been a century-long "No True Scotsman" fallacy.


And so today, bypassing the fact that many of the players afflicted with CTE have been offensive linemen like Mike Webster--guys who don't do much tackling--it's tackling that needs correction. Back to the fundamentals, of course. That this is just another way of shifting the responsibility for the game's inherent dangers onto the players isn't lost on the players themselves. As former Bronco Nate Jackson said last year, the NFL's new safety initiatives are about the league "admitting" to the head injury crisis "and then absolving themselves of the guilt. Like, 'Hey, we tried to protect you. We changed the rule. We penalized and fined you. If you hit with your head and get a concussion, it's your f-ing fault.'"

Nobody is foolish enough to claim the game can be made completely safe, of course, but it's always suggested that safety can be improved greatly with simple, relatively painless measures. John Madden is another believer in the value of a return to fundamental tackling. "I'd like to see the forearms, shoulders, arms and hands get back into tackling, hitting and blocking," he told Sports on Earth's Dan Pompei last year. "It has to be taught. It's coaching." Yet, he notes in the same interview that the dreaded Raiders safety Jack Tatum would have to soften his game significantly to stay clear of the league office today.

Jack Tatum delivering the hit that set off the "Immaculate Reception." Photo by Dick Raphael-USA TODAY Sports Images

Regardless, the Heads Up tackle doesn't even look like a traditionally "fundamental" tackle. The injunction to lead with thrusting forearms into the opponent's shoulder pads should do a good job of keeping helmets apart, but it doesn't look too effective at corralling an evasive runner.


But as is evident in Madden's statement, there's often a belief that fundamentals are not only safer, but also better. The idea is all over the Heads Up program and has been around forever. Consider the position of Clark Shaughnessy, the man who invented the T-formation. The man was also incredibly conscientious about safety. Forward-thinking. While coaching Pitt in 1943, he advocated that coaches remove any player who had suffered even a minor injury. Even more than that, he said that any player who had shown even momentary signs of grogginess, even if his head had cleared, should be removed from a game. Still, Shaughnessy had to add some spin for the sake of the game, claiming "that the most effective way … to perform every manoeuvre in the football book also is the safest way from the standpoint of preventing injury to the players."

If only. It's a bit like Pollyanna-ish claims that we can solve global warming in a way that also ramps up the economy. No, the most efficient, most direct method for success is very often the most hazardous. That's why people have been doing it. That's why Jack Tatum was not just a dangerous player, but also a very good one. This insistence on the greater effectiveness of gentler play is a have-and-eat-cake strategy that stands in the way of any meaningful actual change.

And for the NFL today, that's the point. Football is the most popular sport in the nation with, until recently, a steady supply of children who'd give anything to participate. The league needs to keep that going, and it's happy to do so by propagating fictions that your kid will be preserved from football by avoiding the failings of everybody else who has ever played. Children, parents, and coaches are all desperate to believe fundamentals can insulate them. Hence the USA Football Heads Up coaching certification asks questions like this:


The correct answer is "true," and it is, but precisely how possible it is to employ fundamentals and just how much they'd reduce risk are other questions. The answers would likely suppress youth football numbers, but the NFL's answer--fundamentals--can actually be spun to increase them. To get it right, kids need training from the ground up. So, while doctors and concerned people like Madden are arguing that nobody should be playing tackle until at least 10 years of age, an article on the USA Football site says players can only safely learn the fundamentals if they start young: "I'm not a fan of eliminating contact sports for kids under 14," says Kevin Guskiewicz, a University of North Carolina researcher. "We need to focus on behavior modification, skill development, and how to block and tackle properly at this age."

That means more football, younger. Here is a scientist preaching just what the league needs preached, that the safest road for players is to tackle early. In League of Denial, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru describe how Dr. Guskiewicz got to such a league-friendly position. Although he had been one of the first to suggest the seriousness of CTE, he later joined the league's concussion committee. Upon doing so, he began to walk back some earlier claims, no longer suggesting that the issue was one of accumulated hits, the claim the NFL fears most. Now, one of the most respected authorities on football head injuries is in the league's employ, and it's hard not to be skeptical of statements like this that align with the league's desire to continue youth tackle football.

Teaching "fundamental" tackling might make sense if you believe most tackles can be made into a precisely coordinated collision, all the parts lining up perfectly like a guy catching sunglasses with his face. And it might make sense if you believe the NFL's insistence that players' post-career suffering is just a concussion phenomenon, not one of accumulated hits. But if the damage we're seeing, the damage affecting 76 of 79 brains at the nation's largest brain bank, really is about the impacts occurring on every single play, then it doesn't matter how fundamental a tackle is. Then you have to blame the game for what happened to guys like Junior Seau and Mike Webster, guys who never even had a reported concussion. Then you'd have to reduce hits of all kinds, pull back on youth tackle football, and not seek its expansion.

It's not that telling kids to try to move their heads is useless. There is probably some truth to the muscle memory stuff, and it certainly is possible to make the game safer. After spearing was banned (the first time) in 1976, players really did use their heads less, leading to a reduction in spinal injuries.

But the fundamentals will never be as effective as a technique as they are as a way to blame people for what went wrong. Donnovan Hill says his coaches taught him a particularly unsafe way to tackle. They supposedly taught him a bygone era's fundamentals of "putting a hat" on a player by hitting with the forehead. As important as the question is to Hill and those coaches, it's moot to the league. That you can even debate the influence of coaching just abets their message that proper technique has a significant impact on safety.

But it's impossible to play the way they advertise, and you wouldn't watch if players did. Not because you like injuries, but because it's the variation from the norm that makes sports interesting. It's each player's unique approach. It's all the things that can go wrong and the split-second corrections players make to achieve their goals anyway. Football is what the players do, not what they're told to do. We've had a lot of evidence to show that what they do is fundamentally dangerous. Maybe there's a way to truly alter play to change that, but a new definition of proper play and some antiseptic drills won't get us there.