On a recent cool, dark evening, Cato June walked across the field at Simon Elementary School faced with the tall task of saving the sport he loves so much. Like the 100 or so kids waiting for him, June is from Southeast D.C., where he was a high school football star, eventually playing his way to a seven-year NFL career. But a lot has changed since June retired from professional football in 2009.
The big hits he used to relish as a bruising linebacker have helped expose the dangers of the game. While football is still wildly popular, the custodians of the game are paying particular attention to the youth level, where participation dropped by 6 percent nationwide last year and is down again this fall, according to USA Football, the sport’s national governing body. They know the future of the sport may well hinge on what happens on playing fields like this one.
“I want to tell you about playing football the right way,” June told the Pop Warner players, ages 5 to 13, of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington. “We all love football, but we all know football can be a dangerous game.”
For years the NFL flouted the risks associated with concussions. It has been heavily criticized for its slow response, and in August it reached a tentative $765 million settlement with 4,500 former players who had sued the league claiming the sport misled them on the dangers. In response to the head injury crisis, the NFL has enacted rules changes, donated money for scientific research into the effects of brain trauma and launched a public relations effort promoting its efforts to make the game safer.
It is also focusing much of its attention on the youth level, where across the country this fall, young players are being taught a new, standardized – and what the NFL believes safer – way to tackle. In partnership with USA Football, the NFL has helped sign up 2,800 youth leagues for what it calls “Heads Up” football, accounting for about 90,000 coaches and 600,000 players. That means about one-quarter of youth players are studying new techniques, learning a universal language and, NFL officials hope, playing the game differently than recent generations.
“When they learn how to [tackle properly], they’re going to enjoy the game more and they’re going to be safer at the same time,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. “I think this is getting back to fundamentals, it’s getting back to the way people should play the game and that emphasis at an early age will allow them to play the game for as long as they play it more safely.”
While many applaud teaching a safer way to tackle, there are fears that what endangers football players most isn’t a matter of technique but rather the game’s inherent physical and violent nature. In this view, concussions are as much a part of the sport as shoulder pads and first downs. “Heads Up isn’t going to eliminate concussions 100 percent,” said Patrick Kersey, USA Football’s medical director.
In many ways, the new campaign is merely a “temporary Band-Aid” failing to cover a much bigger problem, said filmmaker Sean Pampliphon, a noted critic of the NFL who last year released “The United States of Football” documentary that questioned the game’s safety. “They can run a bunch of ads with moms saying it’s going to be okay, but it’s really just a PR Jedi mind trick,”
Pampliphon said. “And we want to believe it, because if we don’t, we can’t watch football the same way. It’s the quandary that we all face.”
For now the tension and challenges are both enormous and simple: Will young players take their cues from the pros they watch on Sundays or can they help change the way the game is played at the highest level?
Answering that question has become an urgent matter for both the NFL and USA Football, which is why June was dispatched to the field in Southeast D.C. and dozens of other former players have made similar community pilgrimages in recent weeks.
June, 33, now a coach at Anacostia High School, told the kids about his career and urged them to keep their heads out of the play. It’s some of same principles he teaches his high school team but much different than the way he learned the game.
“If they’re taught the right way to begin with,” June said, “they’ll never learn the wrong way.”
Heavy youth participation
Much attention has been paid to the danger of concussions in the NFL but professional football represents only a fraction of Americans – fewer than 2,000 – who play the game. Roughly 3 million children play football at the youth level, along with an additional 1.1 million playing in high school and 71,000 in college.
Every year emergency rooms treat nearly 175,000 sports-related concussions among children and teens, an increase of 60 percent over the last decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Concussion incident rates are higher in football compared with other sports, but there are no definitive figures on the number of head injuries suffered on youth fields. And compared with the NFL, very little of the research on brain trauma in the sport has focused on the youth level.
Medical experts say parents should not necessarily extrapolate data from the NFL – where more than a dozen players a week last season were reported as suffering a concussion – and draw conclusions about the scope of the problem on the youth level. Whether it should be of greater concern or not remains to be seen.
“It’s continuing to evolve and we’re learning more,” said Kersey, a former team physician for the Indianapolis Colts. “It’s a new field of medicine, untapped to some degree.”
The latest research, presented last month at a Biomedical Engineering Society conference in Seattle, has found that youth players sustain more hits to the head in practices than games, and those hits can have similar force as those absorbed by adult players. In an unrelated study, researchers have found less than 4 percent of youth players suffered a concussion last season.
Because the brain isn’t usually fully mature until age 22 or 23, some fear the effects of a concussion on a younger person may be more dangerous than on adults. Opponents have emerged saying tackle football is unsafe for children. Several former NFL players and President Obama are among those who have said they’d exercise great caution before sending a son onto the field. One of the leading experts in traumatic brain injury, Robert Cantu, has proposed barring anyone under the age of 14 from tackle football, urging kids to instead play flag football.
Others contend teaching the proper tackling techniques at a young age will make the game safer at each successive level. “I’ve been a big proponent of teaching the game the right way at that age where they can develop those motor skills and they can protect themselves,” said Kevin Guskiewicz, a University of North Carolina professor who has served on NCAA’s Concussion Committee and the NFL’s Head, Neck, and Spine Committee.
Guskiewicz says Heads Up football is “one piece of the concussion puzzle” and there’s no one solution that could ever fully alleviate concerns about traumatic brain injuries. Equipment must improve, he said, awareness and understanding must increase, and young players must retain what they learn on the field – not what they see at the college and professional level on television.
“Youth mimic what they see,” Kersey said. “If they see it on Saturdays and Sundays, they’ll try to do the same thing when they hit the field later in the week.”
Old guard, new teaching
Cris Collinsworth, an NBC football analyst, visited a high school practice recently near his Kentucky home and spotted drills he never saw during his own football career.
“I started laughing,” he said. “I was like, what are they doing?”
Collinsworth played eight seasons in the NFL, appearing in three Pro Bowls and two Super Bowls. He later helped coach his son’s youth and high school teams and knows the difference between good and bad technique.
“I have to admit sometimes the most dangerous people coaching our kids right now are guys like me,” said Collinsworth, 54, “guys brought up in a different era that were taught to slam your head in there.”
That was one of the major problems facing USA Football. Youth football leagues have for years operated independent of each other. They each have their own rules, set their own standards, teach and play the game their own way.
“We’re trying to shift from that wild west, staunchly independent nature of youth football and move toward a uniformed, more standardized approach to this game,” said Scott Hallenbeck, the executive director of USA Football.
The youth level of the sport is coached largely by volunteers who learn the game from watching television, studying videos and recalling how their coaches taught them years earlier. Even those who found some success had wildly different ways of teaching the game. To brainstorm new techniques, USA Football assembled coaches from all levels.
“What was interesting was, everyone had a different approach to tackling,” Hallenbeck said. “It was quite the process to get everyone to agree on technique.”
What they settled on is a five-step approach to tackling, one designed to keep the head out of the play at all costs. It established universal terminology that would be consistent from team to team and league to league and banished old football maxims, such as, “Lay a hat on him!” or “Ear hole him!” or “Put your head on the numbers!”
A new method of tackling
The tackler is taught to approach the ballcarrier with short, choppy steps, staying nearly upright with the head up. At the moment of impact, contact should be made with the front of the shoulder pad – not the top – and the tackler’s head should be at either side of the ballcarrier. The hit should be made with an ascending motion and tacklers are taught to throw both arms skyward like pair of uppercuts.
In addition to the new techniques taught to children, coaches are required to undergo certification and parents are given instructions on identifying and treating concussions.
Last season, the Heads Up campaign was piloted in three youth leagues, one in California, another in Indiana and a third in Fairfax County. For some it was a pronounced change.
Tim DiVecchia, who coaches a 115-pound team in Centreville called the Wildcats, had no formal training on teaching tackling or identifying concussions when his son’s team first needed a coach seven years ago. He recalls a time early on when his son took a big hit and came to the sideline in tears.
“C’mon, get back in,” he said. “We need you.”
“Sometimes, the aggressions in football are coming from the parents and that’s where the instruction can be really valuable,” DiVecchia said. “There are some parents who are football enthusiasts, who say ‘Hit em!’ ‘Level the kid!’ ‘Lower your head!’ They’re more aggressive than the kid.”
Last year, DiVecchia’s son banged his head hard on the turf. It wasn’t a concussion but it was close enough for a concerned father to pull him for the rest of the game.
In time, youth league organizers hope to stem the participation losses and convince more parents that it’s safe for their children to put on a helmet. Officials say it’s too early to understand the full impact Heads Up has had thus far this season. But in Centreville, officials say that anecdotally they’ve seen fewer injuries, better-informed parents and most importantly,
“It’s not difficult to tackle the right way. They just have to learn it,” said Damian Caracciolo, the Fairfax County Youth Football League’s director of player safety and health, a newly created position. “It won’t happen on every single play at this point, but we’re seeing it more. For the first time, you can see them understanding how to do it the right way and why they need to do it the right way.”