KATY, Texas -- The Katy Youth Football league plays its annual championship games in a 10,000-seat stadium. Based outside of Houston, the league boasts 58 teams and more than 1,600 players, including 6-year-olds who wobble comically under 3-pound helmets before crashing into each other and falling down.
The league also could be considered a human laboratory for the National Football League. Led by commissioner Roger Goodell, the NFL has spent $1.5 million to persuade parents in leagues like Katy that it is making football safer by teaching tackling techniques that will reduce concussions.
The nationwide initiative is the NFL's latest attempt at managing the concussion crisis. After years of using questionable scientific research and public statements to deny the seriousness of head injuries in football, the NFL is inserting itself directly into the difficult conversations parents face amid growing evidence that football can lead to brain damage. The effort is not being met with universal praise.
The basis for the NFL's claims that it is making football safer for children is a program called Heads Up Football. Introduced in 2012 by the NFL's youth development arm, USA Football, and funded entirely by the league, Heads Up is now employed by 2,700 youth leagues. The program teaches concussion awareness and proper helmet fitting, but its central tenet is the soon-to-be trademarked Heads Up Tackling program. When executed properly, proponents say, Heads Up Tackling literally takes the head out of the game. Players are taught to keep their heads up and lead with their shoulders when tackling.
"What we're trying to do is change the culture of football, to more of a culture of safety -- to understand that we want to teach them the proper way to play the game," Goodell says in a promotional video.
But critics view Heads Up as a cynical marketing ploy -- a repackaging of old terminology to reassure parents at a time the sport is confronting a widening health crisis. Participation in Pop Warner dropped nearly 10 percent between 2010-12, "Outside the Lines" reported last November. According to an HBO Real Sports/Marist poll published last fall, one in three Americans would be less likely to let their child play football because of concussion risks.
Nate Jackson, who played six seasons as a tight end and special teams player for the Denver Broncos, described Heads Up as "a product that the NFL is selling" to "create the illusion that the game is safe or can be made safe." The tackling techniques are "laughable," he said, when applied to game and practice situations, with players moving at high speeds and colliding from different angles with their heads.
"It's rather shameless. I think it's sad," said Jackson, whose recent book, "Slow Getting Up," details the physical hardships of life in the NFL. "I think it's indicative of what the league's motives are: profit, profit, profit."
Jake Plummer, whose 10-year career as an NFL quarterback ended in 2006, serves as a Heads Up "ambassador" -- one of several former NFL players who promote the program.
Plummer said Heads Up has pluses and minuses. The program, he said, attempts "to certify and educate some of these, well, meathead coaches that want to play like they did in high school -- smashing skulls, saying, 'Let's take this kid out because he's kicking our butts.' "
But Plummer said he understands concerns that Heads Up is being used as "propaganda to try to convince [kids and parents] it's safe."
"It's a violent god damned game. Your kid is gonna get hurt," he said. "If you want to subject kids to football, don't be naïve and think little Johnny will be OK. I tell moms that I can't guarantee your son won't get hurt, but if they're going to play football, at least know what the coach is teaching them and know that these techniques will not ensure his safety but will help them play the game and maybe not get hurt as often."
The NFL declined requests for an interview, but Jeff Miller, the NFL's senior vice president for health and safety provided a statement and answered a few follow-up questions via email. The league, he wrote, chose to underwrite and promote Heads Up as part of its continuing support for youth football: "As USA Football grows the Heads Up Football program, we look forward to continuing to support its good work and helping to make a great game even better."
The components of Heads Up -- including certifying coaches and teaching concussion awareness and proper hydration -- support the NFL's statements that "Heads Up Football makes the game safer," Miller wrote in a separate email.
NFL and USA Football officials sought to downplay the NFL's role in the program to "Outside the Lines." The league initially referred all questions about Heads Up to USA Football. A USA Football spokesman repeatedly declined requests to provide a copy of a video showing Goodell visiting a Heads Up pilot program in 2012; after finally agreeing, the spokesman explained that one of his concerns is that people would be confused and conflate the NFL's role. Scott Hallenbeck, USA Football's executive director, described Heads Up as "a USA Football program that the NFL has helped fund. It has taken the media a long time to say that accurately."
In addition to being the sole funder, the league's teams have hosted dozens of Heads Up training seminars for coaches and parents. The NFL recruited 100 former players like Plummer to serve as "ambassadors" to youth leagues throughout the country. Last year, the NFL flew in dozens of youth officials to introduce Heads Up at a conference in Canton, Ohio, the site of the NFL's Hall of Fame. The commissioner, NFL coaches, prominent former players and even team doctors have recorded testimonials espousing Heads Up's critical importance to making football safer.
"The head must come out of football," says Dr. Stanley Herring, a Seattle Seahawks doctor who is a member of the NFL's Head Neck and Spine Committee and chairman of USA Football's Medical Advisory Committee, in one video. "You have to be tough to play football, but no one has a tough brain. And so the right thing to do is take the head out of the game."
Last October, during a clinic in Chicago directed at the mothers of young players, Goodell described Heads Up as "a program we created this year to teach kids how better to tackle." A league spokesman, Brian McCarthy, said the commissioner was using "shorthand" to describe the NFL's role. "But we do not run Heads Up Football," McCarthy wrote in an email.
Miller, in an email, wrote: "USA Football developed the program. We created a national platform for it … We will certainly 'own' proudly the parts of the program we participate in -- promotion, club participation, and the funds we contributed to USA Football."
The perception that the NFL is behind Heads Up cuts both ways. On the one hand, it gives the program the league's stamp of approval and access to its vast resources and media power. On the other, it may fuel the impression that the NFL, an industry with $10 billion in annual revenue, is manipulating parents for corporate gain.
"The reality is you can't put this in the hands of the NFL to govern," said Michael Oriard, a former Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman and Distinguished Professor of American Literature at Oregon State University who recently wrote a cultural history on the role of the head in football. "Even with the best possible intentions, the corporate NFL has its needs and interests. You don't let the tobacco industry regulate what's safe in terms of smoking, but parents are kind of in that position here."
The Katy Youth Football program was a logical choice for the NFL and USA Football to push Heads Up. One of the largest youth programs in the country, KYF fields teams in six age divisions. Tackling begins at 6, one of the youngest eligibility requirements for contact football in the region. Teams use NFL names and suit up in replica uniforms, including helmets with team logos. The championship games are held at Katy High School's home field, 9,768-seat Jack Rhodes Memorial Stadium, which is equipped with an enormous video screen for replays. During the recent KYF Turf Bowl games, hundreds of parents huddled together in 30 degree temperatures to cheer on their players.
As popular as KYF is, participation has dropped more than 20 percent since 2008, when the league had 88 teams, said Anthony Biello, the KYF president. Biello attributed the decline to concerns about concussions, the growth of two other leagues in the area and the increasing popularity of year-around baseball.
KYF quickly embraced Heads Up Football.
"For the most part, everybody, they've seen the handwriting on the wall," said Jim Rasco, the league's vice president and a coach in the Mighty Mite division. "It's pretty obvious when all of a sudden kids don't want to play football and parents don't want their kids playing football and the numbers aren't there. And when you see that the NFL is behind this program and they're teaching this … why would you not teach that?"
Emil and Cris Sliman were among the Katy parents who were won over. Two years ago, son A.J. started tackle football at age 6. Soon after, he sustained a concussion when a larger boy lowered his helmet during a pregame drill and speared him in the face mask. He suffered headaches for days. A.J., who just turned 9 and weighs 62 pounds, remains on "watch," said his mother, meaning his physical activities are monitored at school to guard against another concussion.
His parents disagreed over whether to let A.J. return to football after the concussion. Emil, who credits high school football with developing discipline and toughness in his own life, wanted to let his son play. Cris, a medical billing administrator, didn't. "I lost," she said. But Cris said her concerns were offset somewhat when KYF introduced Heads Up before this season.
"It's a good thing," said Cris. "It's hoping that there's less chance now that kids will get injured, especially when it comes to the head."
Emil agreed: "To me, the message was it was gonna translate into less head injuries." The involvement of the NFL, he said, was "great, to be honest with you. I felt like it was, 'OK, they're looking out for their future.' They want to be able to have a quality product when the children grow into young men and become part of the NFL. You don't want a defective product."
Both said they have noticed that fewer players are leading with their heads this year.
Biello, the KYF president, said every coach in the league is certified under the Heads Up training program. The cost of the certification is $5 and is subsidized by the NFL.
"I think there's a lot more work that needs to be done but I think that USA Football and the NFL are on the right track in giving us these tools and these resources that we could utilize to train our coaches and, in turn, they can train their parents and just use better techniques for the players," said Biello. "Anytime you can limit the amount of contact with the head area you're gonna reduce the amount of concussions that are potentially possible."
In December, the American College of Sports Medicine, the National Athletic Trainers Association, and the Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society each announced its support of Heads Up.
But even some proponents of Heads Up acknowledge there is no evidence the program reduces the risk of concussion and long-term brain damage.
Heads Up teaches a five-step tackling technique that emphasizes a straight back and upright head; a wide base; a "buzz" of the feet, followed by a low step just before impact; an explosive opening of the hips; and finally a double upper-cut "rip" with the head to the side.
Hallenbeck, USA Football's executive director, acknowledged that much of the technique is not new. The main difference, he said, is developing consistent terminology.
"We have to teach the basic fundamentals to an 8-year-old and a 10-year-old," he said. "We need to stay simple." In many ways, said Hallenbeck, Heads Up is a return to "old school" tackling of the 1960s and 1970s, before advances in helmet technology led coaches to use terms like "bite the ball" and "put a hat on it," encouraging players to lead with their heads.
In 1967, the American Medical Association, concerned about spearing and a higher incidence of spinal cord injuries, issued a press release asserting: "In the correct, head-up tackle, the player uses his shoulders, arms and chest to stop the ball carrier." Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian endorsed the statement and said he never taught players to lead with their heads when tackling or blocking.
"We're finding ourselves in many respects getting back to an older form of tackling," Hallenbeck said during an interview at the organization's Indianapolis headquarters.
Asked if USA Football had evidence that Heads Up makes the sport safer for kids, Hallenbeck replied: "We're in the process of trying to figure that out right now."
He said USA Football is evaluating 10 leagues -- half of which use Heads Up Football. "We're trying to get to the point where we can definitively say Heads Up football is actually scientifically working," Hallenbeck said. "I'm not there yet, but that is our goal."
Data will be collected through the 2014 season.
During one practice in Katy, 8-year-old players could be seen engaging in a one-on-one tackling exercise that closely resembled the notorious Oklahoma drill, in which a blocker and tackler face off between a narrow gauntlet; the tackler tries to throw off the blocker and bring down a ball carrier. The drill is no longer used in many places because of safety concerns.
The team's head coach, Dave Perez, said he does not use the Oklahoma drill. He described the exercise as a "fit-thud" technique in which players are encouraged to "move their feet and be in the right place and fit their arms. Our goal during practice is really to avoid taking kids down."
Although the coaches consistently encouraged the players to keep their heads up and to tackle with their shoulders, the young players frequently butted heads and crashed to the ground.
"We've seen the same thing," said Hallenbeck, when told about the head-to-head hits, even where Heads Up was being taught. "What we have to do is continue to drill in and create that muscle memory and that behavior change in these young players."
To reinforce Heads Up, Katy Youth Football brought in Kenneth Podell, a neurological consultant for the Houston Texans and co-director of Houston Methodist Hospital's Concussion Center. Podell, in an interview, said he believes Heads Up Football is effective in two ways. First, the program emphasizes limiting the use of the head, which reduces the amount of head trauma a player is likely to absorb. Second, Heads Up raises concussion awareness, educating players, coaches and parents about what to look for when an injury occurs.
But Podell acknowledged he had no idea whether Heads Up makes football safer.
"Is it going to be significant enough to reduce the number of concussions?" he said. "Time will tell."
Sal Marinello has coached youth football for more than a decade, and this past year he ran a travel team in Watchung, N.J. That league used the Heads Up program, with Marinello and others becoming certified Head Up coaches.
Marinello wasn't sold. On his blog devoted to health and fitness, he wrote: "So, I have coached an entire season of youth football, watched well over a hundred hours of live football, and watched hundreds of hours of televised football, AND have yet to see an example of the NFL's Heads Up Tackling Technique anyplace." He added, "In the entirety of the NFL's Heads Up teaching materials there is not one real world, game play example of the tackling technique the NFL is teaching."
Jackson, the former Broncos tight end, agrees that the real-world application of Heads Up Tackling is where the program falls apart. The head, he said, has become an inextricable part of football, as inseparable to the sport as it is to the human body.
"Your head is a weapon in football; it is your most effective weapon," he said. Jackson said the head plays a role not only in tackling but in every major facet of the sport, including blocking and running. "You have to turn yourself into a missile, and the best way to do that is your head."
Jackson said the NFL would be better off discussing the game's realities with parents.
"I think that it's important to have a conversation with parents in this country about really what they're risking with their kids," he said. "Their kids are going to get hurt. Not necessarily brain injuries, but they're going to get banged up. It's a violent game. And their head is always in play. You can't remove the head from play in the football field. The only way to remove the head from the tackle is to remove your body from the field."
Producer Simon Baumgart of ESPN's Enterprise/Investigative Unit contributed to this report.