As part of USA Football Month, the NFL is teaching kids to practice 'Heads Up Football.' Should the league teach the same lessons to professional players?
The National Football League is promoting safe tackling techniques for kids, but is the league ducking those very same safety principles when it comes to its own players?
As the sport's national governing body launches its league-supported USA Football Month to champion programs and playing techniques designed to make the game safer for young players, questions are arising about whether enough is being done to reduce concussions among football professionals.
"When I talk about USA Football, I laud their effort," said coach Bobby Hosea, who runs the Train 'Em Up Academy for advancing the science behind responsible tackling. "But I don't know what they teach in the NFL. If I were in professional football, I'd want to spend time in tackling training camp. They go to speed camps, agility camps, they're spending all their time doing aerobics football, but they're not learning how to hit."
Hosea, a former defensive back for UCLA, takes particular issue with a disturbing amount of "crown-first impacts" he notices among the pros — a physical strategy that risks head injury.
"The words 'wrap him up' are used, and that physical action causes your hips to go out when you reach, and your head to go down," he explained. "Guys are just throwing themselves around. It's time for a revolution if the game is going to survive."
His call to action comes as a safe-tackling program, called Heads Up Football, is being rolled out on a national level as part of USA Football Month. The awareness initiative connects "master trainers" certified by Heads Up with player safety coaches, who learn the basics and then spread their knowledge throughout the leagues.
The program, funded with a $1.5 million grant from the NFL Foundation, is available to nearly 2,800 of the estimated 10,000 youth leagues in the United States and is expected to reach about 600,000 youth players between the ages of 6 and 14.
USA Football spokesman Steve Alic points out that some NFL teams, including the Carolina Panthers, have begun instructing players in clinics that follow Heads Up principles.
"Heads Up tackling teaches a player the fundamentals progressively," Alic explained. "Starting against air, then bags, then controlled contact without going to the ground, and learning each step in a way that aims to take the head out of a fundamental line of contact."
The safety program includes lessons on concussion awareness, heat and hydration and proper equipment fitting.
HARD 'TO TEACH AN OLD DOG NEW TRICKS'
But learning a new way of tackling may not be so simple to pick up for mature players, according to former NFL linebacker LaVar Arrington, who was drafted second overall in 2000 by the Washington Redskins.
"It's harder to teach an old dog new tricks than it is to teach younger generations," said Arrington, who also played for the New York Giants and currently serves as a Heads Up ambassador.
"I think it's because they're not being coached. The more people we get to educate and to buy into trying to help change the culture of the game, I believe it will stick and hold. So can we make the message so clear that it becomes second nature? That's the ultimate goal," Arrington said.
He said he's suffered a few concussions while playing, but that doesn’t keep him from allowing his own children to play football.
“You can't put your kids or yourself in bubble wrap," he said.
Arrington said he believes the NFL and USA Football are being proactive in trying to raise safety standards and protect the reputation of what he calls "the greatest team sport ever."
In an emailed statement to MSN News, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy affirmed the league's commitment "to work hard on many fronts to make the game better and safer for our sport at all levels."
McCarthy said the NFL is leading a "culture change" and making ongoing rule amendments "designed to take dangerous techniques out of the game," including issuing fines and possible suspensions for illegal hits, as well as improving medical care for concussion treatments, investing in brain-injury research and raising awareness about the severity of such injuries.
He added that NFL clubs "do teach proper techniques and fundamentals, including not using the helmet as a weapons."
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