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John Madden doesn’t believe in the Heads Up Football program


Via the national TV network it owns and operates, the NFL has launched a “Heads Up Across America” tour, aimed at extolling the virtues of the Heads Up Football program and, in turn, calming the fears of parents who may choke off the supply of future NFL players.

From Texas to Pennsylvania to Arizona (which is actually only six percent of America, but apparently they rounded up), NFL Network has looked at what youth coaches are doing to keep kids safe via the Heads Up Football program. It all went according to plan. Until the effort landed in Canton, for a roundtable discussion including Hall of Fame coach John Madden and Commissioner Roger Goodell.

With the likes of moderator Melissa Stark, Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin, and Chris Golic (wife of Mike Golic) praising the Heads Up Football coaching certification process, Madden did what Madden made his career as a broadcaster doing -- he blurted out something that he believes in, genuinely and often strongly.

"[T]hey can’t learn them in a short time,” Madden said of the techniques taught to coaches in the Heads Up Football program. “I was a coach, and I put a lot of education and experience into coaching. . . . How long does it take to get a certificate?”

“An hour and a half,” Goodell said.

“And all due respect to the program, I don’t believe in it,” Madden replied. “I respect coaches, I respect what good coaches do. I know that you don’t learn to be a coach in an hour and a half.”

Goodell, who in that moment may have preferred being grilled again about Ray Rice, tried to address Madden’s concerns.

“It’s not saying you’re going to make someone a great coach,” Goodell explained. “It’s certifying them in certain techniques and giving them some understanding of some of the medical issues. Not to make them a doctor, but to know when to make sure they get medically evaluated if they’ve had an injury.”

While the actual value of the certification process, as Drew Magary of Deadspin illustrated earlier this year, is subject to debate, Madden had a broader point to make. And when Madden has a point to make, he makes it.

“I’m a firm believer that there’s no way that a six-year-old should have a helmet on and learn a tackling drill,” Madden said. “There’s no way. Or a seven-year-old or an eight-year-old. They’re not ready for it. Take the helmets off kids. . . . Start at six years old, seven years old, eight years old, nine years old. They don’t need a helmet. They can play flag football. And with flag football you can get all the techniques. Why do we have to start with a six-year-old who was just potty trained a year ago and put a helmet on him and tackle? . . . We’ll eventually get to tackling.”

On one hand, it’s admirable that the league didn’t scrub or edit or otherwise ignore Madden’s views. On the other hand, the league doesn’t seem to be inclined to adopt Madden’s opinion, honed through decades of involvement in the sport. Instead, the NFL apparently will let Madden speak his mind, nod respectfully, and then continue to certify coaches through 90-minute video sessions to teach kids under 10 years old to tackle with helmets on.

Why not support unequivocally Madden’s belief that kids under 10 (and probably a little older) shouldn’t play tackle football? They can play flag football, they can learn the game, they can graduate to helmets and tackling at a higher level. The widespread availability of flag football for kids not yet in high school or middle school could actually draw more kids to the game, giving parents a way to let their children play safely at a young age before taking more physical risks after they’ve grown and matured a bit.