ATLANTA (AP) — When Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay spoke Saturday to dozens of youth football officials about better protecting players, it wasn't just the health of the players at stake. The well-being of football might be on the line.
As information has surfaced about long-term dangers of head injuries, particularly when an injured person resumes contact too soon, youth player participation has dropped.
So when McKay, chairman of the NFL's rules-making competition committee, told youth football officials that they have to help the sport by teaching better techniques and paying more attention to safety, he was tending to the game's present and future.
"We have to set the right example, but I think we also have to educate through the lowest levels that we play football of the importance of awareness, the importance of (concussion) protocol," McKay said. "I think that starts with coaches and parents."
A decline in football participation isn't attributable entirely to injury news, but it didn't help a few months ago when President Barack Obama said in an interview with The New Republic, "I'm a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son I'd have to think long and hard before I let him play football."
USA Football, the governing body for youth and amateur football in the U.S., is endowed by the NFL. USA Football staged Saturday's forum at Pace Academy, an Atlanta private school that began playing football in 2009.
USA Football's "Heads Up Football" — http://usafootball.com/headsup — is a pilot program designed to instruct coaches how to teach young players safe tackling techniques, among other initiatives — all with an eye on safety. All NFL teams are pushing it. Saturday's five-hour USA Football forum centered on Heads Up with other topics.
Some new nuances go against the old-school grain — no more setting a tackling target (a ball carrier's chest), no more wrapping up (instead going with a fork-lift motion), and using the front of the shoulder (not the top) for impact.
Former Falcons linebacker Buddy Curry (1980-'87), a USA Football master trainer, said: "It's tough to teach an old dog new tricks. The way we were taught, which was, 'Be tough, man up, suck it up,' is not the way to teach now. We're going to play tough, but we're going to play smart and safe."
A big part of the Heads Up Football plan calls for players to admit when they are injured, or tattle on teammates when they're knocked woozy. It also suggests that parents and players to be educated ahead of time about concussion symptoms and the recovery process, and that youth organizations employ a dedicated player safety coach.
A pair of former Falcons, wide receiver Brian Finneran and defensive back Coy Wire, are USA Football ambassadors and more than 70 former NFL players are involved in every NFL outpost). They all said that honesty and peer-to-peer accountability is critical.
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