While the NFL engages in a public battle with The New York Times over an article entitled “N.F.L.’s Flawed Concussion Research and Ties to Tobacco Industry,” Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is engaging in a more productive conversation than the league that employs him, addressing the epidemic that is threatening football at every level.
In a 40-minute speech to athletic directors, coaches and trainers from dozens of Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League schools during a “High School Sports and Concussions” seminar at Heinz Field on Thursday, Tomlin said “football is under attack” and coaches are “gatekeepers” who must protect the sport from the threat of head injuries.
“We’re gatekeepers, very impactful on the young people we deal with, and so we have to be very mindful of the words we use, and those words have to be consistent,” said Tomlin, per Steelers.com. “It’s our words and our actions, because the young people are watching it all, and so it goes beyond establishing these cute catchphrases that the guys are going to remember. Think about ways you can incentivize that, think about ways you can reinforce it with action.
“Player safety and concussions and head injuries are our generation’s opportunity to not only safeguard the game but also to be active participants in the evolution of the game. This is our generation’s cause as it relates to football.”
Addressing the crowd from his perspective as an 11-year college and NFL assistant and as Pittsburgh’s head coach since 2007, Tomlin encouraged the use of catchphrases like “see what you hit” and “don’t hit the head; don’t use the head,” according to Steelers.com.
“Catchphrases are big in our game,” he said. “There’s memory associated with that.”
Encouraging coaches to offer trainers the same respect they command on the sidelines, Tomlin also suggested a reward-based program for following proper protocol, like helmet stickers for “Form Tackle of the Week” and “Form Block of the Week,” per Steelers.com.
“I’m never going to tell you guys how to run your programs,” added Tomlin. “A guy walking around all week with a big sledgehammer – that’s great, that’s a beautiful thing, because it encourages the attitude of hard and fair play that we desire. But be mindful of the criteria for those incentive-based programs, and what a great opportunity to reinforce the evolution of this game and the culture change by being inclusive in those incentive programs with things that back up the catchphrases and the teachings we use in this area.”
Tomlin’s openness on a sensitive subject among football faithful is an interesting contrast to the NFL’s perceived silence on concussions. Then again, the Steelers have been at the forefront of the discussion, playing in the shadows of Dr. Bennet Omalu’s brain trauma research at the University of Pittsburgh, with former Steelers center Mike Webster serving as the impetus for the neuropathologist’s discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
“The game is evolving,” added Tomlin, “and I’m asking you to evolve with it.”
Former Steelers fullback Merril Hoge, whose career was cut short at age 29 by discussions, also addressed the crowd, along with presentations from USA Football East Coast High School Regional Manager Ed Passino and several doctors with an expertise on concussions.