Monday, May 5, 2014

NFL Drafts Maryland State Dept of Ed to Help Stem Decline in Football Participation

Email sent to Maryland State Board of Education and State School Superintendent Lillian Lowery
Dear Dr. Lowery and Members of the State Board,

The press release (link) for today's press conference with the NFL's USA today indicates that Maryland Public Secondary School Athletic Association (MPSSAA) "officially supports and endorses" the NFL's Heads Up Program.  I think it is important that MSDE staff take control of the public relations message and narrow it to merely indicate that MPSSAA is requiring all football coaches to take an on-line course offered by an outside vendor that shows them proper tackling technique and how to instruct their players in it. 

Any message beyond this will likely immerse MPSSAA, MSDE, and Donna Hill Staton, who the press release indicates will attend, in an ongoing controversy related to whether the Heads Up program actually makes football safer or is merely an NFL's PR effort to keep kids playing football in the face declining participation due to concerns about concussions and other injuries in football (See the ESPN article (link).  (MPSSAA data indicates that football participation in Maryland declined 6 percent between 2010 and 2012.)

For the NFL, kids playing football at the youth and high school levels is essential to the business model of its $10 billion annual cash flow.  In the wake of concerns about concussions and the NFL's past efforts regarding concussions among its players, as detailed in League of Denial, the NFL has embarked on a PR campaign to convince parents that football is being made safer (link).  
Part of this effort has been to aggressively acquire endorsements from "trusted sources," including parent-oriented sports blogs (link), health care providers with financial relations with the NFL, even the national PTA (link).  (Going forward, MSDE should ask health care professionals who serve on MPSSAA's  Medical Advisory Committee to disclose all financial relationships with the NFL and related entities.)

So today's press conference needs to be seen in light of a very thought-out PR campaign on par with that seen for other issues with an industry's financial interest at stake such as global warming or tobacco use.  Some people say that there is an effort to "manufacture doubt," with a message of "the science is unclear," "football is getting safer, "get the right health information," "I believe it is so."

As you may recall, I raised concerns last August that Maryland football coaches were teaching students to tackle by initiating contact with their helmets, i.e., so-called facemask-on-the-football tackling.  So I was pleased to hear that MPSSAA would require all Maryland coaches to take an on-line course on the best practices way to tackle and how they should teach it to students. 

However, there is no way to know if coaches taking the course will make football safer.  One football coach in Montgomery County frankly told parents last year that teaching proper tackling doesn't work because in a game or practice a kid will just do whatever they think they need to to bring down an opponent. 

Unless coaches who ignore the new training are removed or disciplined, long-engrained dangerous techniques will likely continue. (Last year, I commented on the proposed concussion regulation, asking you to impose disciplinary measures if coaches did not follow the concussion procedures.  You did not do so, based on staff's analysis that such measures would be, in their words, "punitive.") 

Further, if referees do not imposes penalties when a player initiates contact with his helmet, the on-line course that coaches take this summer may not have much effect at all.

For the State Board, emerging research raises as least 3 issues about whether the public school system should continue to support high school football, even if current football coaches receive on-line training to use long-standing techniques that possibly make football less dangerous:

(1) Is Football Consistent With Academic Education Mission?  Given research showing high school football players experience altered brain function that can take months to resolve, even in players never diagnosed with a concussion (link), is promoting and subsidizing high school football consistent with a school system's sole public mission of academic education?

(2) Is Football More Dangerous When Operated By Public Schools Than by Private Sector?  Given the limited sovereign immunity for football coaches as school employees, is football more dangerous when sponsored by the school system than when it is conducted as a club sport, where it will have private sector discipline of having to obtain and maintain private liability insurance?  Football, like ice hockey, would likely survive as a club sport, but possibly safer if its organizers had to adhere to the market discipline of maintaining insurance.

(3) Does High School Football Create Higher Risk of Incarceration or Homelessness for Participants?  A recent report indicates that half of the teen prison population at NYC's Rikers Island prison facility have a history of brain trauma (link).  And Time magazine reports that a study found that nearly half of homeless people surveyed had a history of brain trauma (link Here is a link to the underlying study link ).  Given this, by promoting and subsidizing high school football and the repetitive head blows that its players sustain, is the public school system setting up some students who play football to life-long risks of incarceration and homelessness?

For all of the reasons above, MSDE's message at today's press conference should be limited to saying that football coaches are now required to take training in proper tackling. 

Thank you for your continuing attention to the issue of the safety of Maryland students who participate in high school athletics.


Tom Hearn


  1. It sounds like conflicting goals; as state dept of Ed is desperately trying to stem the tide of brain drain by promoting STEM, the NFL is trying to recruit more players in order to stem the tide of ticket sales.

  2. In the spirit of openness and transparency will Mr Hearn identify himself.

    1. He did. His name is Tom Hearn. You can search his name on this blog and read his previous advocacy on this topic.

    2. Irony alert: anonymous commenter asks blogger to identify himself "in the interest of openness and transparency."

      Tom Hearn


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