By Anna McDonald | Aug 1, 2013
The NFL recently invited mothers to attend a safety clinic at Ohio State University.
NEW YORK — NFL commissioner Roger Goodell quietly entered the conference room at league headquarters and stood in the middle of the group. Instead of positioning himself away from the table and chairs and guests gathered there, he chose to stand behind one of the visitors and rested his hands on her chair.
She was one of 30 mothers who were invited by the NFL to attend a roundtable on youth sports. Also at the June meeting were CEOs from youth basketball, hockey, cheerleading, football, lacrosse, soccer and Little League baseball who spoke about the status of safety in their sports. I was there as a mother; my 12-year-old son, Caleb, plays contact football and his safety is important to me.
Goodell came in midway through the meeting and had only a few minutes to spare, but his message was still impactful.
“We are all learning from one another. We can all get better,” Goodell said. “That’s what you want as moms, that’s what I want as a father.”
Goodell exuded authority with kindness, control with openness. Concern over safety in football? Sure, he communicated that; but the message was also mixed with a plan to turn around football’s entire culture.
“We are committed to being leaders in promoting safety in sports,” Goodell later said to me via statement. “Our actions continue to positively affect the health and safety of NFL players but also reach the youth level. It’s a responsibility we take seriously and we continue to be relentless in our work towards a safer game.”
But how can the league, recently placed under the microscope for its player safety, accomplish this? And how can it do so without the message coming off as a cliché or insincere? Part of its plan is reaching out to mothers like me whose children love the sport, the same children who, in many ways, carry the future of football in their hands. (The NFL invited me to be part of the program after reading my article on why I let my son play football.)
And the league made its first step, asking us for feedback on how to reach parents through its primary safety effort, Heads Up Football. The program continues its outreach initiative Thursday in Columbus, Ohio, as the NFL hosts the first clinic for mothers (along with USA Football and Ohio State University), which will focus on equipment fitting, concussion awareness and proper tackling techniques. (Goodell and Ohio State head football coach Urban Meyer will also be on hand to answer questions.)
“If we are going to change the culture of football we have to have the parents involved,” said Scott Hallenbeck, executive director of USA Football.
The problem now with the message of USA Football and the Heads Up Football program is the question of credibility. Some may think it is just a marketing campaign by the NFL. More important to me as a parent, I know the science on concussions is still developing. I need to base any decisions on facts, not marketing; on science, not hysteria over the dangers of playing football. I want to know if there really is such a thing as safe tackling.
“I think Roger [Goodell] is someone who, as the commissioner, is someone who has a genuine interest in the safety and well-being of the players in the game and how the game is played,” Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive lineman Howie Long told me in a recent phone interview. “I think Roger has a difficult job and I think he [is doing] a job that is well worth the effort. I applaud him for his efforts; it’s a difficult position to be in.”
Long is the perfect person to answer my question. Not only did he play 13 seasons in the NFL, but he also has football-playing three sons. Chris, 27, Long’s oldest son, is a defensive end for the St. Louis Rams. Kyle, the middle child, was an offensive lineman at Oregon and was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the first round of this year’s draft. The youngest, Howie Jr., played in high school.
“I can tell you technique is really the most important aspect of learning how to play football,” Long said. “It’s so true. I’m a firm, firm, believer in it. I see people taking on blocks the wrong way. I worry about their shoulders, I worry about their necks and I worry about their heads. If you’re not taking a block on in the right way, you are putting yourself in peril.”
Long said the most important thing he could do as a dad and former player was to teach his kids the fundamentals of the game. Over an eight-year period, Long coached all three of his boys in high school.
“It’s not like I can help him with his chemistry or his trigonometry or his course load at the University of Virginia,” Long said, for example, of his son Chris. “The one thing I can do is I can certainly help him understand and teach him the right way to play the game. … For me, that was the best gift I could possibly give him as a parent.”
Parents also need to be aware that there are other key elements to having safer youth football programs. The most important question to ask: What is a program’s concussion plan?
“I would be very reticent to let my child play a high-risk contact sport without having a trained professional on the sidelines that understands the injury,” said Dr. Michael Collins, the Clinical and Executive Director for UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Center in Pittsburgh. “Athletic trainers understand concussions very well.”
Dr. Collins said parents should also be educated about concussions. In particular, parents should know how to conduct baseline testing on their children; know what to look for in recognizing a possible head injury; know who to see if there is a problem; and know whether the athletic trainers or personnel watching their child play is educated in recognizing the signs of concussions.
“There are formulas here that work,” Dr. Collins said. “We see people get better. We can treat this injury. I think that when parents go through that process and they see their child managed appropriately and with the right information and with the right education and the right treatment protocols, this injury isn’t so scary. It’s something that is manageable.”
Once Heads Up Football is integrated into a football program and a team has a concussion plan, parents should also make sure the program has proper equipment that fits correctly.
This is the NFL’s package to parents.
“I really believe that the pro game in so many ways impacts high school, college and youth football,” Long said. “The emphasis on safe play and clean hits is starting to resonate.”
And when it does resonate, what then? When the culture of football begins to change, can parents be assured their children will never get hurt playing football? No, that will not happen in any sport. But football is so important to many kids and to our culture, largely because of the team-centered values it teaches.
There is nothing more important than my son’s safety, but I also know football touches his life in a way no other sport can. In his own words from his sixth-grade class:
My football games are spectacular. If it’s not the time I get to spend with my friends than it is the sheer compelling feel of the game. All at once the lineman rushing toward each other and yelling and the adrenaline when the ball falls to the ground; dances around like the ground is on fire. Everyone rushing for it at the same time. The feel of it is amazing and that’s why I love playing football.
When people take an honest look at the state of the NFL, the reality is like anything in life — there is good with the bad. For every heart-breaking story of a life damaged by concussions or other injuries, there is a story of a life that has been changed for the better.
“I honestly believe that, and this is reality, coming from a challenged background myself, if you trace the social and economic background of a majority of the players, they come from a challenged background,” said Long. “As long as there are people who are striving for something better, it’s a definitive opportunity.”
Even Chris Long, who grew up with a different background than his father, says football has given him so much.
“You have to be accountable for what you do and when you make mistakes own up to it; and not everybody does that,” Chris said. “I think football has helped me a lot, to be able to be more accountable and then also just the teamwork. Obviously, that’s probably a cliché but having been exposed to so many different people with so many different backgrounds, it has taught me skills of communication, problem solving, all types of stuff.”
But have we really reached a point in our culture where something like teamwork is a cliché?
Teamwork hasn’t lost its meaning for my child. It still matters. Hard work hasn’t lost its meaning for him, either. It still matters. Being friends and teammates with kids from different backgrounds hasn’t lost its meaning. It will always matter.
We have a long way to go before science can help parents fully understand all that needs to be done to make the game safe, but the NFL’s effort is there and that matters to me.
It matters because the league is setting an example for my child. Its effort matters to me because, whether kids end up playing football in the NFL or not, they will influence the league’s future. They are the players or fantasy football devotees or professionals who will excel at their jobs because of the life lessons they learned through playing football. They are the next generation to tailgate, gather on weekends at high schools, colleges and NFL stadiums.
This is the generation entrusted with keeping football alive.
Anna McDonald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com’s SweetSpot blog.