There's no question the National Football League is facing a third-and-long when it comes to its image and reputation.
The sport's been plagued by countless player concussions and is facing a massive class-action lawsuit from former players seeking compensation for the long-term effects of head injuries sustained during their playing days. At the same time, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, there has been a slow, but steady, decline in the number of youth football players.
As a result, the NFL is huddling as we speak, and beginning to implement a far-ranging, multi-phased plan. The campaign has many goals. The one with the greatest, long-term implications, though, is called Heads-Up. Its overarching intent is to avoid alienating future generations of players whose parents simply won't let them play.
The best defense is a good offense
The NFL's Director of Public Relations, Paul Hicks, recently set aside time in his busy schedule to educate me on the league's many efforts, partnership with USA Football (www.usafootball.com) and the Heads-Up program.
Heads-Up was test piloted during the 2012 Fall football season, and will be rolled out nationally this coming Fall to 100 football programs in 50 states. Its core components include:
- Coaching education.
- Concussion awareness.
- Equipment fitting.
- Heads-up tackling.
As I mentioned, the Heads-Up program is only one part of the NFL's efforts. They're also funding such research as:
- $30 million to the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health to support the most innovative and promising research on all types of brain injuries (AND, a commitment to fund $290 million in additional, independent research over the next decade).
- Investigating sudden cardiac arrest in young athletes; heat and hydration-related illness, chronic degenerative joint disease, etc.
- Countless collaborations with independent experts in a variety of medical fields.
The NFL is also discussing the possibility of placing fully-trained neurosurgeons on the sidelines of every game. That's key, because:
- NFL head coaches are trained to win, not to diagnose brain concussions.
- Team trainers are typically distracted by providing on-the-spot triage to other players who have sustained neck, shoulder or knee injuries.
One of my big aha moments came when Hicks mentioned the USA Football coaching education program.
Hicks said it’s difficult to say how many junior league and high school coaches have received training in such basic wellness needs as helmet construction, tackling techniques and hydration. That triggered memories of my maniacal high school coach, who pushed us mercilessly in the late Summer heat, refused to let us sip water and praised those players who returned to a scrimmage even though they were literally staggering from head injuries, dehydration or pulled hamstrings.
Before penning this follow-up blog, I wanted to confirm Paul's suspicions that the NFL's efforts WERE making a difference and, despite the dire warnings made in a recent Advertising Age article, most Americans would still allow their kids to participate in an undeniably violent sport.
And so, I employed my various social media channels. I asked a sampling of 100 employees, friends and family members a simple, yes/no question:
"Would you let your kid play youth football?"
The answer surprised me (but not Paul, who says it mirrors national trends):
- 74 percent said yes.
- Only 26 percent replied in the negative.
Both of my kids grew up playing every sport BUT football, so I never had to cross that particular parental Rubicon. Were I to face it today, I would give my permission BUT, and it's a big but, ONLY if my kids' coaches had been fully educated and certified in the NFL's Heads-Up program. It definitely deserves two thumbs up (Note: As does the 'Don't hit the head. Don’t use the head.' partnership between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the University of Pittsburgh's Medical Center. Check it out at www.steelers.com).
The two-minute drill
Despite all of their progress, the NFL STILL needs a come-from-behind victory to assure it remains America's favorite sport for a long, long time.
My fingers are crossed that Heads-up is the league's version of the New England Patriots quarterback, Tom Brady, and can engineer a last-second win.
Having been briefed by Hicks, I'm confident the NFL can pull it off (and save my favorite sport). Now, if only they could help the Jets turn around their sorry franchise, all would be right with the world.