National numbers drop, but youth football strong locally
These new football helmets were given to a group of youth football players from the Akron Parents Pee Wee Football League, in Akron, Ohio.
IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR NFL - Jake Plummer answers questions from Juneau Youth Football players about his football career at Heads Up Safety Clinic on Friday, Aug. 30, 2012 in Juneau, Alaska. Plummer was in Juneau to promote safe football practices to prevent concussions and other injuries. (Brian Wallace/AP Images for NFL)
This is the last of a four-part series on concussions and their impact on youth sports in the area.
Is football safe?
It’s been a hot-button topic in recent years and is a question more and more parents are forced to face as their children reach the age to play youth football.
A stronger light is being shed on head injuries and the long-term effects they have on people. The effect of that is becoming increasingly noticeable in the sport of football, where numbers of players at the youth level are dwindling at an alarming rate. Pop Warner Football, the nation’s largest youth football organization, saw its numbers drop off 9.5 percent nationally from 2010-12.
The study showed that Pop Warner lost 23,612 players over the two years, dropping national numbers in the program from a record 248,899 players in 2010, to 225,287 in the 2012 season. While some people have suggested a plethora of reasons for the decline, the most common reason given seems to be the concern over head injuries.
However, that drop off in numbers at the youth level has not been as noticeable on local programs, all of which compete in the Suburban League, which is akin to Pop Warner.
Gary Darling, who was president of the Greenfield Youth Football Association for six years before turning over the duties to current president Marge Fisher, said that the Greenfield program has not seen a dip in numbers, and that there are around 30 to 35 players in the Peewee and Junior divisions. Greenfield does not have a Senior Division team because players in that age group play on the area’s middle school teams.
“Our numbers are still pretty strong,” Darling said. “There had even been some talk about splitting into a junior varsity team within divisions because the numbers are so big.”
Chip DeForest, who has been the president of the Frontier Youth Football Association for four years, agreed that the numbers have held strong, and added that this past season actually saw more kids “graduate” from the program than last year.
“Our numbers have been even,” he said. “One year we’ll be up, the next year we might be down, and the following year we will be back up again. Last year we graduated six kids, this year we graduate 11. For our program, the numbers have been pretty consistent for the past four years.”
Players playing at the Peewee level are in grades 3 and 4, while the Junior level is made of players in grades 5 and 6.
Some people suggest that starting kids that young is not safe because brains are not fully developed in children that young, and thus, they are more susceptible to head injuries. Local sports medicine physician Dr. Darius Greenbacher says that unlike many injuries, such as broken bones, youth can in fact make a difference — for the worse.
“In concussions, unlike a lot of other sports injures, the younger you are, the more vulnerable you are,” he explained. “A lot of other injuries, the younger you are, the more quickly you pop back. An immature brain is significantly more vulnerable and it’s more likely that you will have a severe concussion and longer symptoms.”
But there are things being done to ensure that young children can safely play the sport, and both Darling and DeForest said the progress has been noticeable. USA Football, in partnership with the NFL, has started the Heads Up program, which is designed to ensure the health and safety of youth football players.
Now, for example, all the coaches in local leagues must be USA certified, which means watching an instructional video once a year. The program teaches coaches to properly fit helmets on players and, of course, stresses the importance of teaching proper technique to players.
“Heads Up is a phenomenal program,” DeForest said. “All of our teams signed up to be part of the program. We learned how to tackle, how to position yourself, and drills that we can use during practice to teach kids to play heads up football.”
The issue at the youth level is generally not the violent collisions that cause immediate concussions. Darling said that you don’t typically see those kinds of injuries at such a young age because kids are not strong enough and fast enough to make those hits.
But many people are now just as worried about kids not having strong enough necks to support even the helmet on their heads. Players can look like bobbleheads on the field. And with whiplash as a cause of concussions, it’s one more thing researchers are looking at.
In addition, starting kids at a young age only increases the number of hits they will take over their playing career and, according to Greenbacher, some research shows that the more hits endured, the lower the cognitive score of former athletes.
“The impacts that aren’t causing immediate concussions, are they having an effect?” he asked. “There are some pretty good studies out there, showing that the longer you have sports exposure, the lower your score on a cognitive test. Professional athletes — professional soccer players and professional football players — in general, have lower cognitive scores than their college counterparts, who then have lower cognitive scores than high school players.
“So, the longer you’re in a collision or contact sport, the greater the likelihood is that you’re going to have lower cognitive scores. This isn’t significantly lower, but low enough that they are noticeable when people are researching this.”
Another safety precaution being implemented at the lower levels is playing-time restrictions. Every kid has to play a certain portion of the game (in some cases up to a half), and there are equipment requirements that are put in place so that old equipment can no longer be used.
The bottom line
So is it safe to play football, and is there such thing as “too young to play?”
The answer is that there is no easy answer. And in all of this, what gets left out is all the good the game of football can have on children. For football parents like Darling and DeForest, the sport is about far more than what happens on the playing field, and it is safe enough that they have no problem allowing their children to play.
“There is so much awareness out there right now, I think coaches and leagues are being very conscious of safety and really taking the time to teach the kids,” DeForest concluded. “It is a different culture out there on the coaching level than when I played football.
“But there is no other sport like it. It’s the ultimate team sport. And probably the most rewarding thing about coaching is seeing 20 kids start the season as just a bunch of players, and seeing how cohesively they get and how much they respect each other and work together.
Greenbacher, himself a hockey player, and whose grandfather played for the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL, agrees that there is a place for contact sports.
“Football is a beautiful game,” he began.
“In any sport, any physical activity, there are inherent risks. And we have to weigh the risk to benefit ratio and figure out what we are OK with. We still see people boxing, and people love mixed martial arts, and those for sure are not healthy for us. But there is an incredible beauty in those sports. Watching Muhammed Ali box, for example. There’s a certain beauty in that.
“With the NFL focusing on concussions, they’ve done a lot of great stuff. I don’t know what we are going to do moving forward, because there is so much we don’t yet know, but I can’t imagine a world without football.”