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Safety First – Culture Shift: Changing the culture of football to reduce violent injuries.

by: Sam Spiegelman
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NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell recently addressed the Harvard School of Public Health and talked about the league’s number one priority – ensuring the safety of the players. But, beyond that, he talked about “changing the culture of the game in a way that reduces the injury risk to the maximum extent possible – especially the risk of head injury.” Goodell went on to say that “the culture of change for player safety is our biggest challenge.”

There is more concern today about player safety than ever before at all levels of football. Along with the NFL, colleges, high schools and youth organizations are attempting to change the culture of the game including reducing the glorification of violence.

What does this culture change mean to the NFL? “The emphasis has to be on safety first and a complete awareness of medical issues by all of our coaches and players,” said Jeff Miller, the NFL’s Senior Vice President for Public Affairs. “This can be accomplished by our rules changes and the enforcement of those rules.”

To understand more about concussions, former NFL players have met with Armed Forces veterans about the subject. The symposiums the two groups have had improved overall awareness. Like a player that doesn’t want to leave a game, a military man in combat does not want to leave his post. But in terms of safety protocol, both look out for their teammates. “This is part of changing that culture – being aware of a teammate’s injury and acting on it,” said Miller.

Television is also a big factor in influencing the culture of the game. Every NFL game is televised along with hundreds of college games and more and more high school games each year. The NFL has had ongoing discussions with their TV partners about culture change. “We want to make sure that all announcers interpret the playing rules correctly,” said Miller. “That is, what constitutes a penalty and what doesn’t.”

“For fans also, it’s important that they understand the game should be played by the rules and enforced as such,” added Miller. “The NFL has a trickle down effect that goes all the way to Pop Warner. If youth players can see that the NFL is blocking and tackling the correct way, it can affect the coaches and players of youth leagues so that the proper techniques and fundamentals are taught. We work with USA Football in educating fans, coaches, parents and the kids on the importance of teaching the game the right way.”

Teaching the fundamentals of the sport the right way is critical. “Youngsters are watching each level of football, watching how their heroes play on Saturdays and Sundays, even Friday night at the high school games,” said Nick Inzerello, Director of Football Operations at USA Football. “They’re observing how players conduct themselves, how they tackle, how they play the game, so it’s critical we get it right at every level. What the NFL is doing to make the game better, safer – it’s tremendous leadership and they believe in what we’re doing for youth football in terms of enforcing player safety. When kids watch at home, this is what they’re going to see, so when they go out to practice it’s really going to grab hold.”

USA Football’s premier player safety initiative is the Heads Up Football Program, a comprehensive approach to further the education of youth coaches and trainers as to proper tackling techniques, concussion awareness and ensuring equipment is fitted to ensure maximum protection.

The program delves deep into the fundamentals of the game, instructing youth players to strike ball carriers in an ascending manner while keeping their head up. It gives coaches, parents and trainers a crash course in concussion symptoms and proper protocol as to how to monitor the situation and how to receive the necessary medical clearance before players are eligible to return to the field. And it gives coaches a better understanding of how those layers of padding and helmets are supposed to fit, while encouraging parents to do what they do best – ask questions to ensure the equipment fits correctly.

The Heads Up Football Program provides those involved with youth football an important insight to the ins and outs of safety. By beginning this education at the youth level, officials are confident coaches, parents and players grow accustomed to these necessary precautions and gain a better understanding of the severity of concussions, game technique and proper equipment fitting that will stay in the back of their minds as players climb through the high school, college and, perhaps, professional ranks.

“Each of these groups of people really help to make the game better and safer. Working with parents, educating them on these key items, parents are more observant as to what’s going on during practices,” Inzerello said. “Coaches can instruct players, and players have to look out for each other. If their teammate doesn’t feel right, they need to know it’s OK to speak up to create a safer experience.”

Part of the culture change is about communication in the sport. Coaches, parents, and fans are now getting away from expressions such as “light him up” and “knock his head off.” Parents, coaches, and volunteers need to choose their words wisely when communicating with players. It’s a step toward changing the perception that football is fueled by violence instead of fundamentals that build success. “We can get carried away with our words and messages sent to 8-to-10-year olds,” said Andy Ryland, Football Development Manager at USA Football.

Some in the equipment industry have also expressed concern about football’s future. Vin Ferrara, founder and CEO of helmet manufacturer Xenith, has strong opinions about why changing the culture of football is necessary for the game’s long term survival. “Football has evolved over decades into something it was not intended to be, and the sport is often played in an extreme way,” he said. “The extreme form of football must be eliminated, so the benefits of the game, including teamwork, selflessness, overcoming adversity, and achieving goals, can be maximized.”

Whether it’s discouraging dangerous collisions, building more awareness of how to play safer, or taking the language of violence out of the game, the culture of football is changing at all levels. The challenge will continue to be how to make the sport safer while maintaining its extraordinary intensity and competition.


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