By now you know that the NFL is being sued by a group of former players who are alleging that their respective teams systematically doped them up and destroyed their bodies, East Germany-style. This comes just as the NFL has perfected its damage control technique when it comes to head injuries. If you watched any football this past season, you probably saw a handful of ads for the league's Heads Up football initiative:
Awww, look at all the cute kids and caring coaches who will probably start dropping c-bombs the second the cameras stop rolling! The premise of this campaign is that football can be a safe and gentle sport for your head if you play the game the right way, which is a nice little way for the league to shove all accountability for concussions onto youth coaches and seven-year-old Pee Wee players sprinting toward punt returners.
Part of USA Football's Heads Up program includes a certification course for coaches, "created by football experts and health professionals," to teach kids the "safe" way to play the sport. FUN FACT: If you complete the course, you get a discount on your insurance if one of your players, like, loses an arm! Even though they shouldn't need insurance if they play football the correct way, right?
It's a sad truth that youth football leagues are usually forced to employ minimally qualified human beings to coach the sport. If you have a resting pulse and no criminal background, you can probably volunteer to help out your local Pee Wee league team, the kind of team that desperately needs proper fundamental coaching, much more so than any pro team, save for perhaps the Oakland Raiders. The Heads Up certification is designed to act as a kind of Good Housekeeping seal of approval for concerned football parents, to let them know that Coach Bob didn't learn everything about proper tackling from his days on the pro knife fighting circuit. USA Football even got the Centers for Disease Control to put their name on this thing.
But is this course legit? I got curious about what the certification entails, so I went to usafootball.com and enrolled in their online seminar for Heads Up football coaching. This course costs $25, because God forbid the NFL give something away for free. There was no face-to-face instruction of any kind, just a series of video lessons accompanied by five-question quizzes at various stages in the training. It's a grand total of just over 70 minutes of video to sit through, which is barely anything, and yet I still found it tedious because I'm lazy and unmotivated. You could easily become certified to be a legit HEADS UP FOOTBAW COACH in just a few hours. Here now is what I discovered over the course of my training.
• The first part of the course is an introduction from Merril Hoge.
Who better to talk with you about brain damage than Merril Hoge?! "As a former NFL running back, I'm familiar with the tackling part of the game." Actually, aren't you more familiar with BEING tackled? I feel we're off to an awkward start. With every course module, you have to watch the whole video before the NEXT button is enabled and you can move on with the course. If you try to skip around through the video, it actually restarts and you have to watch it from start to finish again, which I don't recommend because, again, Merril Hoge. You can play out these videos while doing something else—shitting, eating, etc.—and get on with it. At the end, Hoge thanks you for your commitment to the "greatest team sport ever invented." Aw shucks, Hoge. Now I'm blushing.
• After Hoge's intro comes the first part of the course: Coaching Fundamentals. It's a series of videos—all less than two minutes in length—that are just words on the screen describing how a coach should assemble a staff (hire Norv Turner!) and plan out practices. It's just like someone reading a Powerpoint deck out loud to you. Here's an example of the onscreen language:
If it is possible, try to acquire the following:
- Portable line markers
- Scrimmage vests to differentiate teams
- Hand-held blocking dummies
- Lightweight stand-up blocking/tackling dummies
- Kicking tees
- Coaches whistle and clipboard
- Coaches uniform for game day
Each video in this section—and in fact, many videos within the entire course—comes with a transcript posted below. You can just read the transcript in twenty seconds and then dick around while waiting for the video to finish up. After each section, there's a brief quiz. If you cut and paste the transcript onto a Word document, you can use it to easily cheat on these quizzes. But I'm happy to inform you that cheating usually isn't necessary, since the quizzes are very easy. See for yourself.
Jim Harrick says that's some quality testin'. Each quiz is five questions long. So long as you get four of the questions right (80 percent), you can move on to the next section of the course. I actually failed one of the quizzes regarding Heat and Hydration, nailing only 60 percent of the answers. But the nice thing is that I got to take the quiz again immediately after I failed, without having to re-watch the video (good thing because the video is actually 10 minutes long, which is an eternity in internet time). When I took the quiz again, three of the questions were repeat questions from the previous quiz, and now I knew the answers for certain because of the corrections posted from the first failed quiz. So I passed. Same thing happened when I failed another test twice in a row (it was about passing mechanics… turns out I know very little about basic throwing motions). Just wait for answers to repeat and you pass. This is fun!
• There are visual demonstrations included in the videos, such as a tutorial on shoulder pad fitting. Let's keep that measuring tape where I can see it, coach! I don't want things to get weird.
• I should note that there are some perfectly reasonable elements to the coaching certification course. The videos all stress things that are good because Heads Up is in favor of good things—positive reinforcement, gradual intensifying of drills, and focusing on the well-being of players, like so:
As their coach, it is important to understand and accept that winning may not, and should not be, their top priority for starting to play our great game of football. Nor should it be yours for wanting to coach.
Practice should include maximum activity for the players and only necessary lectures by individual coaches.
It often requires some thought and greater explanation to coach a player in a positive manner. Instead of telling player what NOT to do, coach what you want them TO do.
Nick Saban just burned your house down reading that, but the Heads Up course really is consistent in preaching a kinder, gentler form of football coaching. At no point was I instructed to get in a kid's face and tell him YOU HIT LIKE A FUCKING GIRL! I'M GONNA PULL YOUR NUTS OFF AND FEED THEM TO MY PIT BULL!
This answer was wrong. Kind of a letdown, frankly. Why else get into coaching if you can't intimidate helpless young boys?
• There are only a handful of videos in the course that don't come with a transcript for cheating: Heat & Hydration, Helmet Fitting, Concussion Awareness, and Levels of Contact (for tackling drills). This means you have to actually watch the video, which suggests to me that the folks at USA Football are well aware that you're cheating on the rest of the course. They don't want you skimping on that big concussion module (even if, again, you can re-take the quizzes over and over until you ace them).
• There was also a section of the course on Sudden Cardiac Arrest. Thankfully for me, the video for this section of the course wasn't ready yet.
Maybe the person filming the video died from sudden cardiac arrest. Anyway, I still don't know how to save any of my players should one of them experience the joy of having his heart stop in the middle of the Oklahoma Drill. We'll ice him up good.
• If you've ever played football (I played from middle school through college), most of this course tells you things you already knew. The helmet-fitting course—surely a sensitive topic for USA Football—includes observations such as, "Chinstraps are available in multiple sizes." Yes, thank you. I was not aware of such things. This course is designed to weed out only the most ignorant of adults: men who must have just arrived on a boat from Belgium and wanted to take up coaching American football cold, with absolutely no frame of reference.
• From the instructional video on heat exhaustion: "Remember, we are dealing with kids, and some prefer the taste of sports drinks. This may lead to more fluids being consumed during activities and can be a positive tool." Was there a visible Gatorade towel in this part of the video? Indeed there was.
One other tip from the video: "If weight change is not feasible at your practice site, a simple urine color check can fill the need. … Encourage athletes to drink and recheck until they reach a lemonade color." LET'S SEE THAT PISS, BOYS!
• Let's talk about the concussion video portion of the course, because I bet the whole reason this certification system was devised was to address the concussion issue. If you send Little Johnny out onto that field, you want to know that your coach won't let him get his brain pounded into root marm, right? This is why USA Football dedicates a whopping ten minutes to head injury awareness, tastefully narrated by Chris Nowinski, co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of Medicine. (I put in an email to BU to ask if Nowinski was paid for his participation in this video, but have yet to hear back.)
Strangely enough, the phrase CTE is never uttered within this portion of the course. Also, while every other video concentrates on the game of football, when you get to the concussion section, it suddenly becomes about ALL youth sports. There are stock images of basketball players and lacrosse players and hockey players, and there's even a slide noting that concussions can happen OUTSIDE of sports. Concussions are everywhere, guys! It's definitely not just a football thing no sirree!
A number of serious-looking doctors appear in the video, along with Bill Curry. Wait, what the fuck is Bill Curry doing there? "You can lose a child by not giving rapid attention to the, uh, disorder." Oh, good. Glad he was here to offer that pearl of wisdom. Curry is credited onscreen with having both a BS and an MBA, which I guess makes him Dr. Headsy. Between Curry and Hoge, the NFL can turn even an instructional video into a shitty SportsCenter segment.
• The concussion training stresses a four-step approach to head injuries. Once the injury is detected, you sit the player out, have them checked by a doctor, tell the parents, and keep the athlete out of action until he gets medical clearance to resume play. The CDC has a concussion cheat sheet for coaches and parents to use when looking for possible head injuries. The problem, of course, is that concussion research is still in its relative infancy. So if you follow every step here to a tee (not a given), the kid's brain could still get fucked due to hasty medical clearance or any number of other factors. I thought the concussion quiz might be the hardest part of the course, but it was not. In fact, the quiz I took featured five identical correct answers.
• The biggest section of course breaks down the notorious Heads Up tackling technique that you see in all those dreamy public service announcements. There are seven sections (with transcripts so you can cheat!) in which a goateed football coach in standard-issue khaki pants (must be the uniform he was implored to buy in the beginning of the training) goes through all the elements of proper tackling form: breaking down, chopping your feet, shooting at the ball carrier, and ripping up through him. And do you know what isn't included here? Bringing the ballcarrier down to the ground. I swear. It's not here. Seems like an egregious oversight.
Compared to the rest of the course, the technique for Heads Up tackling is noted in painstaking detail. You must keep a 45-degree angle on your back (this is apparently the magic angle that prevents any and all spinal disintegration). You must strike with the front of your shoulder. ("By striking with the front of the shoulder, he will be able to keep his head and neck in a safer position.") You must rip your arms up through the ball carrier. And you must possess the lightning-quick reflexes to keep your head out of harm's way. Actual talking points from our coach:
At the last possible moment he is going to slide his head to the side, but he is going to keep his head straight and in line with his spine. … He wants his neck bowed and strong so we cue him up to work toward the near number, sliding across at the last possible moment.
This is a sunshine daydream of how football tackling works. Watch any NFL game and you will see world-class athletes reduced to twisting and grasping for anything to bring an opponent down. Tackling is a car accident. You can't choreograph it so that every dent and every collision is perfectly placed. This course is a somewhat noble attempt at that choreography, but it requires flawless technique that the average child will not have and will sometimes not want to have. Ever practice a golf swing and get it right a few times and then have it all go to shit the next day? This is that, except with your brain liquefied on the back end. I can barely plan dinner at the last possible moment, let alone a forceful impact between skulls. You cannot tackle like this every time you tackle someone, and everyone involved in the sport knows this. It's hard. It takes time, and the average child is so overscheduled now he or she probably has three minutes to hone proper ripping technique before tuba practice starts.
And of course, this program is optional. You don't need this certification to coach in a lot of youth leagues. You just need to have a kid on the team and be able to get out of work at 3 p.m. on Thursday to put cones around the field. A math teacher needs to go to college and study math for a few years to teach your kid, who won't get dementia if they do a number line wrong (or will they?!). By comparison, a Heads Up course represents the barest minimum of training, which probably won't significantly decrease your kid's chances of suffering a traumatic head injury. As with most parenting endeavors, you just have to sit there and pray no one gets hurt.
• The course also advises you to work up to live tackling drills with drills against air, then against pads, and then gentler hitting work against your teammates, known as "control" hitting and THUD hitting. I've done THUD practices, where you wrap up your opponent but don't bring him down. It goes to shit quickly. There is always one dickhead kid who hits way too fucking hard, and then you feel like a coward if you protest. Things slip. The hunger for competition makes it easy to get into bad habits, and that goes for coaches and players alike. Thankfully, USA Football has the common sense to implore coaches to limit live contact as much as humanly possible during practice. But let's be honest: this course is a very limited attempt to spread the gospel of properly played football (if such a thing is possible), and can be easily discarded once your local coach has gotten his credentials and can now whistle your children down into the ground. Speaking of which …
• I completed the training with minimal effort and, it's true, I am now fully certified to teach your children the great sport of tackle football. Scroll all the way back up to the top and peep my credentials!
Signed by Carl Peterson himself. SWOON. That is getting framed and hung right next to my PhD in Grit. You can count on me to keep your son from not dying out there on the field. Unless we're down by 20 points against Mt. Forest and I need your boy to be a fucking WARRIOR for me. Fresh with my new degree, I went out into the yard with my two oldest kids (they like hitting each other) and taught them the basics of HEADS UP FOOTBAW. I told my eight-year-old we were gonna do some practicing.
ME: I'm gonna teach you how to properly tackle your brother.
HER: I am gonna bring him down.
I demonstrated breaking down, getting my arms back, keeping my back at the precious 45-degree angle, and slid my head across my daughter's body and ripped my arms up.
"Now you try it on me."
Both my son and daughter took turns running up to me and slamming my sorry ass into the turf. And they both remembered to keep their heads out of the way the first couple of times before throwing technique to the wind and just piling onto me. I doubt that Christian Okoye Jr. over at the local middle school will let them off as easily as I did.
Drew Magary writes for Deadspin. He's also a correspondent for GQ. Follow him on Twitter@drewmagary and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also buy Drew's new Kindle Single, The Rover, through Amazon.