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NFL claims program reduces concussions, and is conveniently wrong once again

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The NFL once again admitted it used faulty data that conveniently aligned with its best interests.

Pop Warner Pee Wee Super Bowl

The NFL has been working hard for the past several years to assuage parents who worry that football is too dangerous for their children. Since early 2015, it has thrown much of its weight and money behind Heads Up Football, a program run by USA Football that teaches youth football coaches safety precautions and drills to ensure proper tackling form. The NFL and USA Football claimed that an independent study showed that the program reduced injuries by 76 percent and concussions by 30 percent.

That sounds great! Except, according to a New York Times report, those claims are not substantiated. The Times reviewed the study by Datalys, a sports injury research firm, and found that youth leagues that used Heads Up Football by itself did not see a reduction in in-game injuries, and that the number of concussions actually went up, albeit by a statistically insignificant margin.

The numbers claimed by the NFL and USA Football were reportedly the results of a preliminary study by Datalys passed along to both organizations in February 2015. When Datalys released its full study the following July, it did not inform either organization that the full data was significantly different from the preliminary findings.

Both the NFL and USA Football acknowledged the errors and told the Times that they would be updating their materials about the program. Scott Hallenbeck, USA Football’s executive director, said that his organization “erred in not conducting a more thorough review.”

The Times report is a significant blow to the NFL, which has been trying to keep youth football programs afloat and ensure that football can remain lucrative in the future. According to the Times, the NFL gave USA Football $45 million in March 2014, largely to encourage more youth leagues to adopt programs like Heads Up Football.

The funding has yet to stem the decline of young athletes playing football. Via the Times:

The N.F.L. and its players’ union formed U.S.A. Football in 2002 to oversee the sport and help it grow among children aged 6 to 14. But participation has dropped precipitously in recent years, from 3 million in 2010 to about 2.2 million last fall — a decline generally attributed to concerns about injuries, particularly to the brain.

One positive takeaway from the report is that Pop Warner Football leagues have had success at reducing injuries by eliminating dangerous head-on tackling drills and reducing full-contact practice time. Those adjustments made by Pop Warner leagues appear to account for Datalys’ preliminary findings of drastically reduced injuries, not Heads Up Football. Again, from the Times:

Similarly, Heads Up Football leagues saw no change in injuries sustained during games unless they also used Pop Warner’s practice restrictions. The drop in practice injuries among Heads Up Football-only leagues was 63 percent, a very meaningful figure. But combined with the in-game injuries the total reduction became about 45 percent, far less than the 76 percent presented by U.S.A. Football and the N.F.L. for the past year and a half.

Bad science is a pattern for the NFL

The NFL and USA Football can plead they were misled, given that Datalys seemingly never informed them that the data they were using was incorrect. This isn’t the first time that the NFL has relied on faulty data to corroborate its best interests, however. In March, the Times found that the NFL omitted at least 100 concussions from a database it used for years to downplay the dangers of head injuries. In May, ESPN’s Outside the Lines released details from a congressional investigation that found that the NFL pulled funding from a concussion study because it didn’t like the lead researcher, forcing taxpayers to cover the cost, and then tried to steer funding to a more sympathetic researcher.

The fact that the NFL didn’t know what Datalys’ study said may have been an honest oversight, but there’s no denying that for more than a year that oversight worked in its favor. Time and again, the NFL has had no problem admitting it was dumb about claims that were conveniently helpful to its cause. Apparently when the league tries to be proactive about its problems, it can’t help tripping over itself.

When the NFL is forced to be reactive, it has taken half measures, from post-career programs that under-service retired players to poor oversight over NFL medical staffs leading to class action lawsuits by former players alleging rampant and dangerous administration of painkillers. Somehow overlooking a published study wouldn’t be the worst thing the NFL has ever done, but it sure doesn’t help a league that is nominally looking out for the health of the people who play its game.