Dubious data hyped NFL program to protect kids from head trauma

headsupfootballAs a former president used to say with finger pointed and head cocked: Well, there they go again. That same angry but resigned tone should be applied to the National Football League, and its dissembling use of data. The NFL keeps damaging its own reputation as it seeks to persuade the public that it recognizes the major, lasting health damage that head injuries inflict, and that the league is doing something about it−especially when it comes to kids who idolize the game and its athletes.

The New York Times has caught yet another instance of league officials’ duplicity, and summed it up well in its Page One headline: N.F.L.-Backed Youth Program Says It Reduced Concussions. The Data Disagrees.

To dwell on the details is only to get enraged by league officials’ attempts to play fast and loose with data, research, and supposed evidence−and to the detriment of kids. The Times drills down on Head’s Up, the NFL’s flagship initiative to educate kids, parents, coaches, and schools on protecting football players from the risks of head trauma, especially concussions. As the paper reports:

The league and U.S.A. Football, youth football’s governing body, which oversees the program, have sold Heads Up Football to thousands of leagues and parents as having been proved effective — telling them that an independent study showed the program reducing injuries by 76 percent and concussions by about 30 percent. That study, published in July 2015, showed no such thing, a review by The New York Times has found. The research and interviews with people involved with it indicate, rather, that Heads Up Football showed no demonstrable effect on concussions during the study, and significantly less effect on injuries over all, than U.S.A. Football and the league have claimed in settings ranging from online materials to congressional testimony.

The Times tracks back to find that U.S.A. Football, which received $45 million in NFL support for the Head’s Up program, funded its disputed study with a $70,000 grant, and by retaining the Datalys Center for Sports Injury Research and Prevention. Five months before it submitted its results for publication in a peer-reviewed medical journal, Datalys shared cheery, preliminary data about what then was hyped as the effectiveness of the NFL supported, injury prevention program for kids.

But that data changed significantly when finally published in The Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine. Datalys, the Times says, subsequently divided its data, especially so it could show favorable outcomes with athletes who not only were in Head’s Up but also playing in the organized Pop Warner leagues.

In brief, the NFL and U.S.A. Football would claim credit for injury prevention that more properly could be attributed to Pop Warner moves that sharply curtailed head trauma; the kids’ league went beyond the Head’s Up recommendations and took steps on its own such as reducing full-time contact practice and head-on blocking and tackling drill. Similarly, researchers had sought to claim credit for Head’s Up for harm reductions among Fairfax County, Va., prep football players. The school district there praised the NFL program for launching their protective efforts. But they noted they went far beyond what the program recommended−and those steps had made the differences.

I’ve written about the NFL’s mendacity in seeking to influence head trauma research with $30 million in funding promised to, then pulled from the National Institutes of Health. Top league officials, who already have settled litigation in the civil justice system for billions with former players over long-term harms from decades of debilitating head trauma, can’t seem to see how their playing fast and loose with the truth mars their sport. Young athletes and their parents really need to look hard at their continued participation in a game that isn’t good for their health and is run by leaders with sketchy senses of right and wrong.

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