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Patrick Hruby

Pop Warner, limited contact and football's brain trauma tradeoff

Little kids will still be smashing each other's brains. Only now a bit less often. Such is the news out of Pop Warner, the nation's oldest and largest national youth football association, which today announced new rules limiting contact drills to one-third of practice time and banning full-speed, head-on blocking and tackling drills in which players line up more than three yards apart.

Better something than nothing, I suppose.
I don't mean to sound cynical. Honest. Even if Pop Warner's new tack is more band-aid than tourniquet -- Why more than three yards? What about sub-concussive blows that result from scrimmage line play? Who enforces these changes when tough guy youth coaches who fear the Pussification of American Manhood far more than future chronic traumatic encephalopathy Medicare bills are abundant? -- it's certainly a welcome change. When it comes to preventing football-induced brain trauma, less hitting is always preferable to more. Always.

Only here's the thing: Pop Warner did not announce plans to become a flag-only association. Red-blooded American boys will continue smashing into each other with premeditated, socially-encouraged malice, absorbing and delivering blows that sometimes register as much physical force as the hits produced in college football. Heads will snap. Brain tissues will still slam against the insides of skulls, stretching and shearing. Electrochemical balances and metabolisms will still be disrupted. Children will still suffer brain damage. 

The only question will be how much.

Actually, that's not only question. It's not even the question that matters most. With football at all levels -- pee-wee, college, pro -- the truly pertinent questions are these: how much brain damage is acceptable? How much risk is too much? The damage and risk are unavoidable; they can be limited, to an undetermined extent, but not eliminated outright. Tackle football means collisions. Hitting. Hitting means damaging force exerted on the brain. Not always. But sometimes. This is not a matter of culture and values and macho, nor of sportsmanlike intent and proper tackling technique. This is an outcome of physics and biology. Period. 

As such, football is a tradeoff. The sport is a tradeoff the way downhill skiing is a tradeoff, and motorcycle riding, and alcohol, and cigarettes. Football can be fun. It can encourage physical fitness, create friendships, give parents and kids and entire communities a point of collective pride. At the college and professional levels, it's a hell of a way to sell advertising space. But the sport also can injure people's brains, ruin lives, devastate human potential. It makes widows. None of this is an either/or proposition. Football means both. Pleasure and pain.

And that means more questions.

How much of one is worth how much of the other? Does it make a difference if we're talking about eight and nine-year-olds instead of high school boys? High school boys instead of college students? College students instead of young adult men? If so, what's the nature of that difference? When do football's rewards outweigh its costs? When are the costs too high? Who decides?

Kudos to Pop Warner. But caveats, too. Reducing the number of times prepubescent boys may endure blows to the head is an unalloyed good. On their own, however, the organization's rules changes neatly sidestep the larger moral issues, issues that remain untackled.