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From the National Athletic Trainer's Association

NATA Re-Releases Position Statement on Crown Of Helmet Violations In Football

Comes after at least two deaths of high school football players in 2013 from cervical spine injuries suffered while tackling

DALLAS, September 17, 2013 - The National Athletic Trainers' Association has re-released an official statement regarding the calling of crown of the helmet violations in an effort to ensure sports safety at every level of football participation. The statement recognizes the work of the NFL, NCAA and National Federation of State High School Associations, which have studied injury patterns and created rules related to top-of-the-head contact. High school football referee

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

Re-issuance of the statement by the NATA comes in the wake of at least two deaths of high school football players from catastrophic cervical spine injuries in 2013, one during spring football practice in Georgia, and a second in Louisiana during pre-season practice in August.* 

According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, there were 34 catastrophic head or neck injuries and nine related fatalities from 2010-2012 (although none occurred in 2012, which made it the first year since 1990 with no reported fatalities).[1]

The re-released official statement urges game officials, coaches, administrators and others to do their part in ensuring penalties are assessed when violations of these rules occur and recommends that:

  • Players should understand a helmet protects the head from blunt trauma injury. It does not prevent concussion 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. [Editorial note: MomsTEAM believes that it is also imperative that football players, at every level of the game, need to be taught how to tackle without exposing the crown of the helmet].

"Putting these guidelines into action will help ensure a collective and collaborative team approach to sports safety across the football practice and game landscape," adds Heck. "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."

The official statement was developed by NATA and originally issued in 2004.

​Helmet-to-helmet contact long illegal

Rule changes in 1976 eliminated, at least in theory, the head and face as a primary and initial contact area for blocking and tackling, which had resulted in a high number of catastrophic injuries and deaths in the years prior to the rule change (helmet-to-helmet tackling and blocking, for instance, for 36 football fatalities and 30 permanent paralysis injuries in 1968 alone)

The original 1976 rule required that the contact be intentional to be illegal. In 2005, the the word "intentional" was dropped from the definition of illegal contact. ​

​While illegal helmet-to-helmet contact has been a point of emphasis in rules enforcement in recent years, anecdotal evidence suggests that officials are not calling all illegal helmet contact, or anything close.[2]  "Referees don't call it anymore," said West (KA) High School coach Weston Schartz, in an April 2013 interview with the Wichita Eagle.

Illegal helmet-to-helmet contact endemic in other sports

Unfortunately, illegal contact going unpenalized is also not a football-only phenomenon; it is endemic in other collision sports as well, including boys' lacrosse.[3] and hockey.

Illegal hits also result in higher measures of head impact severity than noninfraction collisions, according to a 2010 study of youth hockey players.[4]

Not surprisingly, one of the principal ways experts believe concussions and neck and cervical spine injuries can be reduced in contact and collision sports is through more stringent enforcement of existing rules and enacting new rules where necessary (such as enacted by the NFL and NCAA for the 2013 football season strengthening penalties for helmet-to-helmet contact (NFL) and calling for automatic ejection in some cases for targeting a player's head or neck in tackling or for a player leaving his feet ("launching"), as the NCAA has done). If they did, Frederick O. Mueller, Ph.D., Director of the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, and other experts believe, the number of concussions and catastrophic injuries might be reduced because coaches would no longer teach improper techniques and players would no longer use their helmeted heads if they know a penalty will be called, or if they were subject to a game disqualification.

* October 4, 2013 update:  The need for a renewed emphasis on penalizing crown-of-the-helmet contact was illustrated by a recent incident in Texas in which an 11-year-old football player had a vertebrae fractured by an opposing player who plunged the crown of his helmet into his head. Not only was no penalty called by one of the three game officials, but the coach of the player delivering the illegal hit defended the contact as a part of the game. 

Source: National Athletic Trainer's Association

1. Mueller, F, Colgate B. Annual Survey of Football Injury Research 1931-2011, National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research; February 2013. (accessed at http://www.unc.edu/depts/nccsi/2012FBInj.pdf).​

2. Rick Plumlee, "Kansas coaches, officials react to $11.5 million jury award to brain-damaged high school football player." The Wichita Eagle (April 16, 2013)(http://www.kansas.com/2013/04/15/2763513/kansas-coaches-officials-react....)

3. Lincoln AE, Caswell SV, Almquist JL, Dunn RE, Hinton RY. Video Incident Analysis of Concussions in Boys' High School Lacrosse. Am J Sport Med 2013;20(10). doi:10.1177/0363546513476265 (published online ahead of print February 14, 2013)(accessed February 14, 2013) (penalties called for illegal, blind-side hits to defenseless players 25% of the time; such hits accounted for 56% of concussions))

4. Mihalik J, Greenwald R, Blackburn J, Cantu R, Marshall S, Guskiewicz K. Effect of Infraction Type on Head Impact Severity in Youth Ice Hockey. Med Sci Sports Ex. 2010;DOI:10.1249/MSS.0b013e318d2521a).

Posted September 17, 2013