The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association endorsed USA Football’s Heads Up Football tackling program last week and will implement the program for Maryland high school football teams for the 2014 season, MPSSAA Executive Director Ned Sparks announced at a Monday press conference.
The endorsement is unprecedented in state high school athletic associations: though Heads Up Football has been endorsed by the NFL, Pacific-12, Big Ten, Big 12, and the National Federation of State High School Associations, Maryland will be the first state to officially partner with the program in an effort to entrench its approach statewide.
The Heads Up program emphasizes education about proven methods of reducing the risks of playing football and provides training in concussion awareness and prevention, guidelines for properly fitting equipment, rules for hydration and nutrition, and information about the safest tackling techniques and how to teach them.
The MPSSAA will not mandate that its schools comply with and implement the program’s guidelines, but Sparks said he expects 50 to 60 percent of schools to implement the program this season, and he hopes for 100 percent participation in two years.
Implementation requires each team to appoint to its staff a “player safety coach,” whose main role is to monitor the health of his players by enforcing safe practice habits, ensuring that his colleagues are coaching proper technique, and serving as a trained and certified resource between coaches, players, and families. That coach would be trained by USA Football “master trainers” in an eight-hour session, and the $25 registration fee will be covered by the MPSSAA for all contracted public school coaches.
The player safety coach would be required to train his fellow coaches in the program’s guidelines and hold an information session to educate parents on concussion awareness, proper equipment, hydration, and safe tackling techniques.
The Heads Up program was piloted by Fairfax County Public Schools, and Sparks said conversations with Fairfax County officials convinced him of the program’s merit.
“They felt like [the player safety coach] was a valuable, valuable source because parents could identify this person as the person that will be at the school looking out for the best interests,” Sparks said.
Critics of the Heads Up program, introduced by USA Football in 2012, suggest the program is an NFL marketing move to increase youth participation despite growing concerns over head injuries. USA Football is the youth development partner of the NFL and is funded by an NFL Foundation grant.
According to Gerard Gioia, the chief of the Division of Pediatric Neuropsychology at Children’s National Medical Center, the most effective way to reduce the risk of head injuries in football is to reduce the number of exposures to head-to-head contact, something Maryland public schools have already done by reducing the number of full-contact practices allowed. The Heads Up program further reduces the number of impacts by endorsing a return to what Hallenbeck described as “70s and 80s-style” tackling technique: “an ascending blow, shoulder strike, head to the side and head up.”
As of early this week, 10 counties have officially committed to the program — Allegany, Baltimore, Calvert, Caroline, Charles, Frederick, Garrett, Howard, Washington and Wicomico — meaning they are in the process of identifying player safety coaches on each staff and starting training. Prince George’s County is “on board” but finalizing the legal side of a commitment, according to Athletic Director Earl Hawkins.
“We need to make sure we protect ourselves as professional coaches, protect the kids that play, and ease the minds of parents who are letting those kids play so we can keep growing our sport,” said Patuxent Coach Steve Crounse, whose son plays quarterback for the Calvert County school. “I think this is a necessary step that we had to do, and I think everybody will jump on board.”