Twenty years from now, the Superbowl could look drastically different: Football is about to undergo some fundamental changes that are meant to make the game safer for its players. The first to learn the new rules will be the next generation of NFL stars — American children that play in leagues organized under USA Football — but it’s not clear the new rules will prevent the injuries that really matter.
The changes, which constitute a new form of gameplay called “modified tackle,” are being rolled out in response to declining enrollment in the sport, the New York Times reports. Parents, heeding scientific data showing a clear correlation between tackle football play and degenerative brain disease, are hesitating to sign up their children for football leagues because of the risks it poses for their health. The new rules, tested out in pilot trials of USA Football’s program “Heads Up Football,” has already been implemented in 7,000 youth programs across the country as a safer alternative to tackle football, but whether it is actually safer for the brain remains to be seen.
Here’s what the changes will look like: The football field will be smaller. There will be fewer players on the field at any time — six to nine, instead of 11. The classic three-point stance that players are taught to adopt at the beginning of each play will be replaced by a crouching position, and kickoffs and punting will be removed altogether, the New York Times says. In addition to the new rules, Heads Up Football also emphasizes concussion recognition and response, heat preparedness and hydration, proper equipment fitting and cardiac arrest response in their training, in addition to teaching kids techniques to shoulder tackle and block opponents without hurting themselves. Collaboration with “leaders in both medicine and sport,” Heads Up points out, led to the development of these rules and techniques, so we have to assume that they all promote safer gameplay.
According to the organization’s research, the program has successfully reduced injury rates in practice. One study, published in 2016, found that the presence of a Heads Up Player Safety Coach was an “effective” way to mitigate injuries. Another study, featured on the program’s site, pulled data from a study published in the Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine to show that “youth leagues that employed heads up football saw 63% lower injury rates in practice.” That same study, however, caused controversy when it was pointed out that Heads Up didn’t make much of a difference when it came to concussion rates — which are what pose the most immediate concern to parents.
In 2015, a study showing that 96 percent of ex-football players had developed chronic traumatic encephalopathy after experiencing repeated concussions showed how crucial it is to prevent head injuries in football. It’s still not clear that Heads Up’s drastic changes will prevent those — nor is it clear what the long-term effects of the program are on brain health, considering it hasn’t been around very long — so it will be problematic if parents enroll their kids in these programs thinking the risks of playing football will be completely reduced.
Still, it’s not a bad start. However, there’s a long way to go before America’s favorite sport will be considered safe.