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Heads Up Football: Youth Football Program Is Not as Advertised

Posted By Regan Zambri Long, PLLC || 1-Aug-2016

Posted by Salvatore J, Zambri, founding member and partner.

The New York Times recently published an enlightening article detailing significant discrepancies between the safety claims and effectiveness of Heads Up Football and the Datalys Center for Sports Injury Research and Prevention.

USA Football was created in 2002 by the NFL and its players unions to oversee youth football and encourage more children ages 6 to 14 to participate.

Heads Up Football is a program endorsed by the NFL and developed by USA Football "to advance player safety in the game of football." It involves teaching and certification to ensure compliance with certain health and safety protocols and conducting safety clinics. With strong support and funding from the NFL, USA Football started the Heads Up Football program in 2013, with the stated goals to improve safety and reassure parents. Clinics for a team's "player safety coach" focus on proper hydration, blocking and tackling techniques, among other safety topics." In early 2014, the NFL injected an additional $45 million into the program, aimed at getting more youth leagues into the program.

Thousands of youth leagues have bought into the Heads Up Program, based primarily on its claims of effectiveness, including 76 percent injury reduction and 30 percent fewer concussions. Marketing for USA Football cited an independent study. According to a review by The New York Times, the study did NOT show the effectives of the program that USA Football claimed. "The research and interviews with people involved with it indicate, rather, that Heads Up Football showed no demonstrable effect on concussions during the study, and significantly less effect on injuries over all, than U.S.A. Football and the league have claimed in settings ranging from online materials to congressional testimony."

According to the chairman of the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (USCPSC), “Everybody who is involved in trying to improve the safety of youth sports, when parents such as myself are so desperate to have effective solutions, has the responsibility to make sure that any information that they are putting out to the public is accurate, is comprehensive, and is based on legitimate science. It does not appear that this met that standard.”

So, what actually happened with the data? Several errors occurred. First of all, Datalys relied on preliminary results for the initial claims that were contradicted in the final paper. After The NYTimes interviews, lead researchers admitted that they had not updated USA Football until after the interviews. Secondly, USA Football erred in not ensuring that the data was up to date before publishing it in their print and online materials. This inaccurate data was prominently featured in news media and youth league websites to reassure parents that Heads Up Football was scientifically sound. "N.F.L. promotional materials have called the program “The New Standard in Football;” a page in its 2015 Information Guide is headlined, “Study Finds U.S.A. Football Program Advances Player Safety.”

Last summer, when The Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine published the formal Datalyst paper, a different set of data for injuries and concussions was included. Heads Up Football leagues actually had slightly higher concussion rates and no changes in injuries. Only programs that combined the Heads Up Football program with the much more restrictive Pop Warner rules had a significant drop in concussion rates and injuries.

The New York Times concludes this article with a pronouncement that football officials and youth programs continue to cite research as evidence that Heads Up Football makes football safer for young players, especially when it comes to concussions. In fact, many of these statements and numbers that are being used are simply not supported by real data.

From 2010 to 2015, a drastic decline in youth football participation occurred, credited to concerns about injuries. Heads Up Football is not a magic "Harry Potter" invincibility cloak, nor are extra pads and bigger helmets. As more evidence becomes available associating football concussions and their long-term effects, parents are right to second-guess whether to allow their children to participate. Perhaps the solution is not available yet, or perhaps, flag football only for children is an answer.

Do you have any questions about this post? If so, please email Mr. Zambri: szambri@reganfirm.com.

About the author:

Mr. Zambri is a board-certified civil trial attorney by the National Board of Trial Advocates and a Past-President of the Trial Lawyers Association of Metropolitan Washington, D.C. The association recently named him "Trial Lawyer of the Year." Super Lawyers recently named him among the "Top Ten" lawyers in the Metro Area (out of more than 80,000 attorneys) (2014 and 2015). He has been rated by Washingtonian magazine as a "Big Gun" and among the "top 100″ lawyers in the entire metropolitan area (2016). The magazine also describes him as "one of Washington's best - most honest and effective lawyers" who specializes in personal injury matters, including automobile accident claims, premises liability, product liability, medical malpractice, and work-accident claims. He has successfully litigated multiple cases against truck and bus companies, the Washington Metropolitan Area transit Authority, and other automobile owners. His law firm, in fact, has obtained the largest settlement ever in a personal injury case involving WMATA. Mr. Zambri has also been acknowledged as one of "The Best Lawyers in America" by Best Lawyers (2016 edition) and has been repeatedly named a "Super Lawyer" by Super Lawyer magazine - national publications that honor the top lawyers in America.

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