Trainers' association reiterates dangers of football helmet-to-helmet contact

The National Athletic Trainers' Association released a statement Wednesday to reiterate the dangers of helmet-to-helmet contact in football and called for crown of the helmet violations to be called consistently at all levels of the game.

Now is a good time to review the NATA recommendations, especially after the death Friday night of a 16-year-old player in western New York after what was described in local reports as "a helmet-to-helmet hit” during a high school football game. The player lost consciousness after the play and was pronounced dead at the hospital.

The NFL, NCAA and National Federation of State High School Associations have each studied head and neck injuries and generated rules to try to cut down on top-of-the-head contact in football. Resulting injuries have come under increased scrutiny with the recent focus on limiting concussions, but any contact to the head and neck area can result in catastrophic injuries.

Between 2010 and 2012, there were 34 catastrophic head or neck injuries to football players in the United States at all levels and nine of those players died, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research.

"The current recommendations are critical to help prevent injury to the head, neck and spine, including concussion and catastrophic cervical spine injuries for both students and professional athletes," said Jon Heck, director of athletic operations at New Jersey’s Richard Stockton College, in a statement. "Unfortunately, the enforcement of these rules has been uneven and infrequent."

The NATA statement urges officials, coaches, administrators and others to make sure penalties are called when these rules are violated. The recommendations:

  • Players should understand a helmet protects the head from blunt trauma injury, but it does not prevent concussions or protect the spine and should not be relied on for that purpose.
  • The best way to keep players safe is for coaches to teach the rules, players to follow the rules and officials to enforce the rules.
  • For the safety of tacklers, blockers and ball carriers, it is imperative that the rule is uniformly applied at all levels of play and that the use of the top of the head is always called a penalty.

"Putting these guidelines into action will help ensure a collective and collaborative team approach to sports safety across the football practice and game landscape,” Heck said. “They must be taken seriously, implemented vigorously and adhered to at every level of play. It can be a matter of life and death or other possible catastrophic outcomes."

Additional resources:

NATA’s position statement on head down contact and spearing.

The association’s educational concussion video titled "Heads Up"

The NCAA’s 2013 player safety video

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