“Tackling Dummies” Tackles the Impasse of Making Football Safer

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Storyline: In his new book, “Tackling Dummies,” Bobby Vernon offers sage advice about how to make amateur football safer without undermining the game.

You don’t need to travel oversees to experience a cross-cultural experience. Just enter unfamiliar territory. Sometimes that’s as easy as walking down the street.

That happened to me a few weeks ago. I got an inside view of a high school, an institution that’s in my distant past. I expected to learn a lot about academics. I got a huge scoop of athletics instead.

Courtesy: sltrib.com

Courtesy: sltrib.com

The gym was a focal point. Trophies were everywhere. This school’s identity was built on sports, especially winning titles. What pressure for the students, I thought.

I had just finished reading Bobby Vernon’s new book when I took that tour. His words resonated with me as I walked through the school’s halls. Amateur sports today are less about “the kids” and more about the adults in charge.

That circumstance shouldn’t be accepted uncritically. And Bobby Vernon doesn’t.

Vernon–a high school football coach–calls out the system rather than defending it. Focusing specifically on amateur football at the youth, high school, and college levels, Vernon writes about the need for change and lays out a realistic game plan for reform.

Courtesy: Twitter

Courtesy: Twitter

Vernon frames his game plan by criticizing people who impede progress. They are ‘dummies’ who need to be ‘tackled’ (hence, the title of this book).

Football apologists are one group of dummies—“purists” as Vernon describes them—who extol the virtues of football as Jon Gruden did just a few days ago. Apologists defend the game, focusing unabashedly on one side of the ledger (the good things) and underplaying the ledger’s flip side (the issues).

Abolitionists are a second group of dummies. These folks find egregious fault with football. Don’t fix it. Kill it, they argue. You can read an example here.

Constructive progress won’t happen either way, Vernon asserts. What’s needed are workable solutions to real problems facing the game. And while a number of items need to be addressed (e.g., ill effects of big money in major college football), Vernon believes priority #1 is making the game safer.

He’s right. But getting there hasn’t been easy. That’s because the American public won’t accept safer football that comes at the expense of changing the essence of the sport. Creating “un-football” for safety’s sake is a non-starter.

Vernon walks this high wire of change successfully: the reforms he proposes won’t ruin the game as we know it. But making the game safer will require improving football techniques and altering the culture of the game.

Courtesy: forwardprogressacademy.com

Courtesy: forwardprogressacademy.com

Like many others, Vernon believes in waiting before starting kids in football (middle school or later). But the cornerstone of Vernon’s book is competent coaches and coaching.

Youth coaches should be certified to work with kids, just as most professionals are certified to practice their professions. Job #1 is teaching solid techniques, particularly teaching kids how to tackle properly. Vernon is a proponent of “heads-out tackling.” Read more about it here.

Vernon believes that tackling fundamentals involve proper leveraging and spacing using the hip as a primary tackling target. He makes a strong case for using flag football and rugby in that regard. Teaching that way would result in fewer hits to the head because youth would spend less practice time in helmets and pads.

Not surprisingly, Vernon is adamant about eliminating “big hits” from the game. Don’t teach it. Don’t laud it. Penalize players for first offenses. Suspend players for repeated offenses. Ban head hits!

Coaching youth requires a special temperament, too. The game should be fun … first and foremost. Teaching and learning, not winning, should be emphasized as the primary goal. Being able to execute competently on game day is the measure of success. More often than not—except in cases of grossly uneven talent levels—winning will result.

Courtesy: youthfootballonline.com

Courtesy: youthfootballonline.com

But Vernon isn’t a fan of long practices to teach football skills. He prefers “tight” lesson plans as any good teacher would. Vernon argues that teaching youth football competently can be accomplished in about 20% of the time that many coaches now spend on the field.

Long practices should be abolished. Limit the amount of time spent in practice on any given day. Limit the amount of time spent in practice during any given week.

I also like what Vernon recommends regarding the kicking game, which is a spawning ground for head injuries. First, eliminate kick returns from the game—except for on-side kicks. Place the ball at the 30 to start a half and after scoring plays. Eliminate punt returns, too. The receiving team would have the option of either fair catching punts or letting punts roll to the spot of eventual play. Punts can also be downed by the opposing team, just as they are now.

And what Vernon has to say about big-time college football rings true to this writer, who spent his career at a major university. Vernon labels it as exploitation.

While that word seems incongruous with the purpose of higher education, it aligns with the reality context of major college football today. The sport has become an industry with ‘factories’ across the country. Fans make product choices in a highly competitive marketplace–just like any other industry. And it’s a big industry, too. There are big budgets, outsized coaching salaries, huge media contracts, billions in alumni contributions, and an arms race in facility development and expansion.

But front-line workers—the players—are compensated with what amounts to fringe benefits–tuition, room and board, and a cost-of-living stipend. What business wouldn’t want to have a huge revenue line without having to pay workers’ salaries? Exploitation.

Courtesy: news.uwisc.edu

Courtesy: news.uwisc.edu

But Vernon isn’t a proponent of “pay for play.” He believes universities should continue scholarship support after players’ eligibility end.

Doing that would not only enable more athletes to graduate from college, it would help athletes get more out of their studies. They wouldn’t have to balance athletic with academic responsibilities.

I strongly recommend Tackling Dummies. It’s a reasonable game plan for change, written by an insider who knows the game and issues associated with it.

It’s a book for literally anybody who cares about the sport.

Reform the game sensibly is its theme. Don’t let Dummies prevail.


Vernon, Bobby. 2016. Tackling Dummies: Playing Amateur Football SMARTER. Irvine, CA: Redwood Publishing.


About Frank Fear

I’m a Columnist at The Sports Column. My specialty is sports commentary with emphasis on sports reform. I also serve as TSC’s Chief Operating Officer and Managing Editor. In that role I coordinate the daily flow of submissions from across the country and around the world, including overseeing editing and posting articles. I’m especially interested in enabling the development of young, aspiring writers. I can relate to them. I began covering sports in high school for my local newspaper. In college I served as sports editor of the campus newspaper and worked in the Sports Information Director’s Office at St. John Fisher College. After finishing grad degrees at West Virginia and Iowa State I had a 35-year academic career at Michigan State. Now retired, it’s time to write again about sports. I strongly support TSC’s philosophy–democratizing voice by giving everybody a chance to write.

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