Taking Aim At Spearing

By Staff

Coaching Management, 13.10, December 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1310/bbspearing.htm

Dale Patton, Head Coach at Pekin (Ill.) High School, calls it the most important 60 minutes of the year. It’s a meeting the night before the team’s first preseason practice, and it’s significant because he and his staff present players their first of many warnings about the dangers of spearing.

“In a loud, almost demanding-type voice, we say, ‘If you do this, there’s a strong possibility that you will die,’” Patton says. “We don’t hedge around it. The freshmen’s eyes get really wide when their head coach puts it in those terms. It really hits home.”

Spearing—and the related techniques of butt blocking and taking a hit with the helmet down—received special attention during the 2005 college and high school season, which is likely to continue in 2006. To encourage officials to be more vigilant in calling spearing penalties, the NCAA removed the “intent” clause from its rule prohibiting head-down tackling, and the National Federation of State High School Associations says it will look into making the same change.

Shortly after the end of the 2004 season, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association and American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) formed a task force to examine head-down contact and found spearing penalties are rarely doled out. Game officials told the task force that the rule defining spearing as the “intentional use of the helmet (including the face mask) in an attempt to punish the opponent” made the call difficult to make because it required them to discern intent in the heat of play. The task force met with the NCAA Football Rules Committee, which removed intent from the rule.

Rule enforcement is only part of a multi-pronged approach to ending this dangerous practice. Much of the focus is on teaching proper technique. The AFCA also reiterated that allowing spearing is unethical coaching behavior.

A major part of the initiative is explaining why spearing is so dangerous to players on both sides of the ball. The task force and NCAA sent a locker room poster to all member football teams reminding players to keep their heads up. The NCAA developed a PowerPoint presentation outlining the mechanism behind serious neck injuries: When the head is pointed down, the neck is straightened and caught between the suddenly stationary head and still-moving body in a tackle. Dangerous compressive forces can result. Laboratory tests have shown that a fracture or dislocation of the neck can occur with less than 150 foot-pounds of energy, while a college-age player can inflict 1,500 foot-pounds.

According to the NCAA, defensive players are four times more likely to suffer catastrophic cervical-spine injuries than offensive players. Thus the emphasis on proper tackling—though offensive players should also be taught to avoid putting their heads down as they’re about to be tackled. First contact, on offense or defense, should be made with the shoulder while the head is up.

Even at the top level of college play, coaches can’t assume that players know and practice proper technique, so it’s emphasized from day one. “When we bring freshmen in, we tell them, ‘Keep your head up,’” says Kyle Whittingham, Head Coach at the University of Utah and a veteran defensive coordinator. “We don’t assume they understand proper tackling technique and safety.”

With his players, Patton acknowledges that head-down play has been part of the game, but says it’s because coaches years ago didn’t know better. “We tell our players, ‘See what you block, and see what you tackle.’ If you do that, you’re likely not to have any problems,” he says. “And when we get kids who, whether by accident or by design, do lead with the head—even if the referees in a game don’t catch it—we call the kids in and tell them they’re going to be suspended if they do it again. We talk to their parents, and we point it out on film. I’ve got a young man this year who did it last year, and if he does it again, he’s going to be dismissed from the team.”