The OTL Investigation on ‘Heads Up’ Football

It may have slipped some of your reading or viewing, but ESPN’s Outside the Lines did a piece on the USA Football Heads Up Program.  The article and video were presented last Sunday morning – I cannot find a YouTube version of the OTL show but you can find that part HERE.  The seven minute presentation is great for a quick overview of the issues ESPN has found.

For more in-depth coverage you should read the article by Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, the same authors that penned League of Denial.  There are some wonderful points brought to light by the Fainaru’s;

The program teaches concussion awareness and proper helmet fitting, but its central tenet is the soon-to-be trademarked Heads Up Tackling program. When executed properly, proponents say, Heads Up Tackling literally takes the head out of the game. Players are taught to keep their heads up and lead with their shoulders when tackling.


But critics view Heads Up as a cynical marketing ploy — a repackaging of old terminology to reassure parents at a time the sport is confronting a widening health crisis.

There is a reason I have been “relatively” quiet on this topic; it’s because they are doing some very good things in the way of education and helmet fitting.  As you may know I am huge on the topic of awareness when it comes to concussions.  I have stated many times that the injury itself is not the “ice burg we can see above the water” rather it’s the mismanagement of the concussion that is the massive ice chunk we cannot see from the surface.

That being said, with the actual tackling technique being taught I too feel this is a repackaging of an old mantra.  Rules were even put in place as early as the 70’s to accomplish this task of taking the head out of the game.  Face tackling, spearing and butt blocking all have been on the books as penalties to help avoid using the head as a weapon.

The problem being that those are not called very often, when they are called they are inconsistent at best, and what has it done for the game over nearly 40 years?  I am not nearly as critical as others; 

Nate Jackson, who played six seasons as a tight end and special teams player for the Denver Broncos, described Heads Up as “a product that the NFL is selling” to “create the illusion that the game is safe or can be made safe.” The tackling techniques are “laughable,” he said, when applied to game and practice situations, with players moving at high speeds and colliding from different angles with their heads.

“It’s rather shameless. I think it’s sad,” said Jackson, whose recent book, “Slow Getting Up,” details the physical hardships of life in the NFL. “I think it’s indicative of what the league’s motives are: profit, profit, profit.”

And he summed it up beautifully at the end of the article, in my opinion;

Jackson, the former Broncos tight end, agrees that the real-world application of Heads Up Tackling is where the program falls apart. The head, he said, has become an inextricable part of football, as inseparable to the sport as it is to the human body.

“Your head is a weapon in football; it is your most effective weapon,” he said. Jackson said the head plays a role not only in tackling but in every major facet of the sport, including blocking and running. “You have to turn yourself into a missile, and the best way to do that is your head.”

Jackson said the NFL would be better off discussing the game’s realities with parents.

“I think that it’s important to have a conversation with parents in this country about really what they’re risking with their kids,” he said. “Their kids are going to get hurt. Not necessarily brain injuries, but they’re going to get banged up. It’s a violent game. And their head is always in play. You can’t remove the head from play in the football field. The only way to remove the head from the tackle is to remove your body from the field.”

Nate stands exactly where I do with this.  Full disclosure on this injury as it relates to the game; players should not use the head/helmet as a weapon and explain that in this game – as we currently know it – the head will be a part of it.  Knowing the risks and understanding identifying the concussion to get the proper treatment is the current idea of “best practices”.  I have written plenty of posts about why we are faced with the current issue, this one being my latest, and until only recently have people begun to understand/grasp the issue.

I commend USA Football for their strident effort to educate and attempt to eradicate the offensive use of the head, that is worth something to me.  However, hitching your wagon to something that currently appears as impossible may not be the best idea.

9 thoughts on “The OTL Investigation on ‘Heads Up’ Football

  1. Phil Colwell January 14, 2014 / 10:27

    why do you think the most important nautilus weight machine anywhere i had played from college to pro was the neck machine; we did not have big necks because we were neandrathols; look at any team photo and you will see the neck of any full contact player is huge because it has to be for survival; i know from experience

    • Phil Colwell January 14, 2014 / 10:37

      just a joke terry ; you know my history and i hope others will follow your articles also; cheers mate

  2. Lead Soldier (@DocPencil) January 14, 2014 / 14:55

    Totally backwards. Why t.rust anything the \nfl says? These guys love to make martyr/heroes out of the cripples they create… or have been doing for years. The whole country in fact/ remember when Nick Buonoconti’s son was made a quad. at on of the Florida big time programs?

    The point should be not make the program seem more appealing/less dangerous.. but how to warn a kid off from the risk of sustaining a crippling injury without yet having passed a quarter of a normal life-span. What is the incremental benefit in the end?

    IF the first principle of medicine were (but it has not been, for many, for a long time) then medically trained people would not participate in this brick-walling. There client must be the individual they are treating, not the activity/league etc. And failure to disclose material evidence that would influence one’s beginning/continuing a high-risk activity, is negligence imo. The doctor is supposed to help the patient give informed consent.

  3. Dwight January 14, 2014 / 15:36

    The simplest argument against this “Heads Up” tackling program and education of technique as a good way to change concussion in football is that the head does not have to receive any contact in order for a concussion to occur. Research as shown that a larger number of concussions are caused by a blow to the body. Many researches will tell you that the rotational forces or acceleration of the head once the body stops moving is just as dangerous if not more dangerous than the actual blunt for trauma to the head.

  4. profarr December 7, 2014 / 23:49

    Love what you are doing spreading the word about the sad truth about the game we all loved. My only comment about the heads up tackling entry is that you fail to impress upon people that your brain shakes when you collide with something. You will still have concussions and sub concussive brain injury whether you use your head or not.

  5. Joseph Webster May 11, 2015 / 22:57

    We at Soldier Sports have a new product on the market this year-the Heads Up Sensor. This device fits into the earhole of the football helmet and alerts the player when his head drops below a 90 degree angle. We are out to prevent injuries instead of identifying them. This is the pefect affordable training aid that is proactive.

  6. Steve Thoman March 10, 2016 / 19:25

    This discussion is important to the extreme in protecting America’s youth in sports today. Football damages the brain. The evidence seems to mount daily in horrific stories of ex-players and emperical science. Monitoring this legacy of CTE in the fatally flawed king of sports. Please don’t bury this story.

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