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Patrick Hruby

Can - And Should - Youth Football Be Saved?

The Atlantic Sports Roundtable on youth football's brain damage crisis

The Atlantic Online

In the newest edition of the Atlantic Sports Roundtable, we tackle youth football and brain damage. Can the sport be made acceptably safe?

Patrick Hruby: ... according ESPN's "Outside the Lines," the nation's largest youth football program, Pop Warner, saw participation drop 9.5 percent between 2010-12. Similarly, USA Football—a national governing body partially funded by the NFL—reported a 6.7-percent participation decline among players ages 6 to 14 in 2011. A National Sports Goods Association report found that tackle football participation as a whole has dropped 11 percent between 2011 and now. And the National Federation of State High School Associations reports decreasing football participation numbers since 2008-2009.

Why the dip? As Pop Warner's medical director told ESPN, concerns about brain injuries are "the No. 1 cause."

This makes sense. Football is fun. Brain damage is anything but. Parents and families are rightfully wary. Already this year, seven high-school football players have died from either head or neck injures. Thousands more have been concussed. While exact numbers are hard to come by, the Institute of Medicine reports that football consistently has the highest concussion rate of any high school sport (11.2 percent), and that the concussion rate in prep football is nearly double that in the college game (6.2 percent). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has labeled sports concussions "an epidemic," reported in 2011 that roughly 122,000 children between the ages of 10 and 19 went to emergency rooms annually for nonfatal brain injuries—and for boys, the top cause was playing football. Scarier still, Purdue University researchers have found that high school players exhibit brain function changes long before they have recognizable signs of a concussion. The more hits a player endures on the field, the more their brain function changes.

Granted, the sport can teach life lessons. But playing chess or volunteering at a soup kitchen can teach life lessons, too, without participants getting hit in the head an average of 240 to 1,000 times a season.

The question, then is obvious: What can football do to change this calculus? Can the sport be made safer? More vexingly, how much risk is acceptable when we're talking about children's brains?

Hampton Stevens: ... [there's a] difference between an unsafe product and an unsafe activity. Consumers are rightfully protected from the former. Free citizens must be allowed to pursue the latter. In other words, there's a big difference between telling a company they can't sell a shoddy product and telling an individual they can't let their kids play a dangerous game. If a majority people in a community decide they don't want a school-sponsored football team, they have that right.

But I'm deeply uncomfortable with football being declared unsafe for kids by some sort of governmental fiat. Ultimately one of the costs of a free society is that people must be able to make their own choices—even if those choices are bad ones.But let's first reiterate that football isn’t the only sport with this issue. As noted by Mike Gilleran, executive director of the Santa Clara University Institute of Sports Law and Ethics at a recent conference on concussions in sports, the gridiron gets most of the media attention, but soccer is no safe haven. Concussions also occur in hockey, as you noted. For that matter, let's talk about cheerleading—which a recent study found was behind 66 percent of "catastrophic" sports injuries among women.

Like yours, my solutions are nothing new. Flag football for kids is one of them. Rule changes, along with Heads Up safer tackling techniques, are important too. As is having athletic trainers on staff. Another idea is bringing back leather helmets. Or at least using softer ones. Counter-intuitive though it may seem, a softer helmet might actually preclude the kind of head-to-head contact that creates so much brain trauma.

My answer, then, is a hedge. Using a combination of better medical care, more effective equipment, and safer technique, we should do what we can to make all youth sports safer—not just football. Yet we can never pretend that life—even for public schoolchildren—can or should be made completely free of risk ...

Jake Simpson: ... Pop Warner participation is down because parents don't want to expose their children to potential long-term brain damage, or even worse, dying on the field. Prepubescent children are, by nature, less coordinated and careful than even high schoolers. And while the kids aren't Patrick Willis or Ndamukong Suh in the force department, they are wearing weapons on their heads.

Patrick's answer is simple and effective to me: Don't let kids play tackle football before high school, or at least junior high. Flag football? Sure. Two-hand touch? Absolutely. But no more of six-year-olds playing the same basic sport as NFLers. For that matter, the league has its share of stars who didn't get tackled before middle school, including Brady, who started playing at 14. Not exactly a wimp, that one.

But that's an unlikely outcome for youth football, not when Hampton's free citizen argument is so prevalent. We won’t know until years from now whether the half -measures taken by Pop Warner and other leagues (no three-point stances, heads up tackling techniques, etc.) were enough to keep the new generation of wannabe NFL stars from long-term brain damage. But it’s likely that for now, Pop Warner participation will continue to decline gradually for a while, then level off at a new normal. Maybe 10 percent fewer kids will play tackle football. Maybe even 20 percent ...

Read the full article at The Atlantic online