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Believe In Change: Improving the Safety of Football

It has been greatly debated that football as we know it is unsafe and without drastic changes, it could lose its allure to the general public. Is the sport of a football beginning a decline in popularity?

Trust in the coaching!
Trust in the coaching!
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

What's up Who Dats! Recently we were blessed with an exceptional piece from our very own Kevin Skiver on the sustainability of the NFL or the sport of American football in general. The heart of the debate centered around the retirement of surprising linebacker Chris Borland, formerly of the San Francisco 49ers. The root of the discussion is player safety and the decisions that will be made by players and parents about the athlete's participation in the sport going forward. I have a perspective on the situation that leaves hope for me that the sport many of us love will be sustained through the turnover of new athletes at every level. With safety being the primary issue, we'll talk about what is being done to improve the game for its own good. From personal experience, I can say that the improvements are starting at the ground floor, youth football.

Is the NFL as we know it sustainable? That was the question brought to us previously and the answer in my opinion is yes! The game will survive because there will be new players, spectators, and sponsors to keep the big shielded machine rolling. What we will see though, is a shift in how the players play the game because they are being taught at a much earlier age to play safer and smarter. The generation of players who are currently at the collegiate level and in the NFL are the last of a dying breed of football player. The newest tackling techniques and safety precautions will be a normal part of the next generation of football players. There are young men and women who will have had the advantage of only playing in systems that encourage safer play. I touched on this safety protocol in an edition of Tee's Corner, but today I'll give you the full run down on what programs are out there and how they work. I am in no way associating these with or giving credit to the NFL, only showing how the NFL will be the main beneficiary of better coaching at the instructional level.

I have coached youth football for 9 years officially, but also spent time helping for a couple of years before that. So after about 11-12 years around the sport at this level, I've seen the instructional programs make great leaps in teaching better technique and properly responding to injury, specifically head injuries. In my first season as a defensive coordinator, probably around 2007, we didn't even speak of concussions in general. The phrase was 'he got his bell rung' or 'he took a lick', but never was it approached as ' hey, this guy may be concussed'. In 2009 when I became a head coach, talk of concussions began to heat up at our level and some leagues started to address it wholeheartedly. I'd seen enough head injuries while playing and coaching, so I jumped in with both feet, promoting safer techniques and downplaying the splash plays that usually end in unsafe and violent collisions. At the start of 2010, we introduced our coaches, parents, and players to our concussion training and injury response protocol. Every administrator, coach, team mom, and volunteer helper was required to complete the CDC course on concussions, first aid training, and the American Youth Football (AYF) coaching certification. This was received with mixed reviews, but 100% compliance was achieved. To ensure that the protocol was being followed, league administrators frequently visited the practice fields as a follow up to the training. The latest progression in the safety program was the addition of the TackleSure course, which is instructed by former NFL and collegiate players and coaches. These programs are indicative of a culture change in the sport from 'play through pain' to 'all injuries must be taken seriously'.

Here's a brief idea (with links to each) of what each program has to offer!

CDC Heads Up Training - This course will help you:

  • Understand a concussion and the potential consequences of this injury,
  • Recognize concussion signs and symptoms and how to respond,
  • Learn about steps for returning to activity (play and school) after a concussion, and
  • Focus on prevention and preparedness to help keep athletes safe season-to-season.
Tackle SureThurmond Moore's Tackling Academy - TackleSure system provides a game-changing approach designed to mitigate the risk to neck and head compared to traditional tackling methods. Coach Thurmond Moore, whom has dedicated his career to teaching proper tackling techniques, will guide coaches and football players through the keys to proper body position, body control and footwork. His system lays the foundation to improve tackling acumen in any game situation.

American Red Cross First AidThis course, developed by the American Red Cross and the National Federation of State High School Associations, gives students an overview of first aid and 'best practices' for many first aid situations encountered by coaches. Students learn skills related to athletic injuries that may also be useful for injuries to officials, fellow coaches or spectators.

American Youth Football Coaching CertificationLearn fundamental coaching concepts and responsibilities and come away with the most important coaching points of the major skills and tactics of youth football:
• Your Responsibilities as Coach
• Communication
• Rules
• Safety and Fitness
• Making Practices Fun and Practical
• Teaching and Shaping Skills
• Coaching Offense
• Coaching Defense
• Coaching Special Teams
• Coaching on Game Day
• Season and Practice Plans
• Risk Management

With this new focus on coaches' education and player safety, there will be a natural evolution within the sport. I do not predict the changes to be drastic or dramatic, but will be substantial. The athletes who are currently sophomores in high school will be the first group of players to have had the new safety protocol in place since they began the sport. This education is producing safer athletes as we speak. The young athletes who are in junior high and middle school will benefit the most because the programs have been fine-tuned as they have progressed through the levels of the sport.

Again we address the question, can the sport or NFL sustain without drastic change? Yes. But the small changes to injury response is enough to make the sport safer and better for the athletes. My message to parents and guardians who have young children with a desire to play the sport is simple: Do your research, find out what type of training and instruction the coaches receive and what approach to safety the league has. Also, look into the programs that have been developed for safety. And finally, rarely is the good news reported in Outside The Lines, only the heart-wrenching ones, so follow up on information that they provide. Keep hope in the sport and the people who are training the young athletes we'll soon be watching on Sundays!

Thanks for reading everyone and as always, Be Cool Who Dats!