Another NFL Great Recommends Kids Don’t Play Tackle Football Before Junior High School

In this piece from the Orlando Sentinel, George Diaz quotes former Miami Dolphin great Larry Csonka as saying “Kids shouldn’t play tackle football until junior high…” and cites lack of qualified coaches and proper equipment as reasons.  The link includes a video of Nick Buoniconti’s son (Buoniconti is another Dolphin legend) talking about the struggles his father is going through after playing football for so many years.  The piece also mentions Buoniconti’s other son, Mark, who was paralyzed playing college football.

I continue to recommend flag football for youth prior to high school.

1st Time Flag Football Coaches Found My Clinic Very Useful

FFF Coaching Spring Clinics

Last month I held six clinics for Flag Football Fanatics coaches in the Columbus, Dayton, and Cincinnati areas.  46 coaches participated in the clinics covering all aspects of coaching in the Flag Football Fanatics league.

I sent a survey to the coaches that participated.  78% of those responding to the survey indicated the material was Very Useful to them.  The overall average response to the question asking the coaches to rate the usefulness of the information on a scale of 1-5 (‘Not Useful’ to ‘Incredibly Useful’) was 4.02 (‘Very Useful’).

FurSpring Clinic Pic 1ther, first year Flag Football Fanatics coaches (my target audience with the Hustle & Attitude clinics) scored the clinics 4.15, taking a particular liking to the discussions concerning the Equipment and dealing with parents and referees.  Coaches who were coaching youth recreational sports for the first time found the clinics even more useful – their scores averaging 4.67!

One coach left this feedback:  “It was a really good session. You have great perspective about the purpose of rec sports and how to talk and encourage kids (get down on one knee and not coaching my kid different than others). Good humor and you helped me get my head around the big picture of coaching kids. It was time well spent – I would recommend to any new coach”.

This is the second season that I have provided coaching clinics for the Flag Football Fanatics folks.  99 coaches have been exposed to the Hustle & Attitude philosophy as it applies to their specific league.  I look forward to spreading the word about best practices in providing positive experiences for children in youth sports through more clinics and this blog (and maybe a book!).

The Future of Youth Football

I came across an article in the New York Times about USA Football experimenting with what they are calling ‘Modified Tackle’ football for youth.  Then again this morning, Nancy Armour wrote about it in the USA Today.  I think this is a great idea.  I have written extensively about youth football – Hustle & Attitude is about providing positive  youth sports experiences for kids; and this includes safety as the minimum requirement.  Where football is concerned, the question of safety has been paramount over the last 18-24 months.   What USA Football is proposing is a step towards making youth football safer – which will make for a more positive experience for children.

Here are my thoughts concerning the NYT article:

  • Is this a crisis situation for football?  Participation among 9-12 yr olds is down 20% since 2009…that’s 20% fewer future high school players.  Where do 99+% of NFL players come from?  College football.  Where do 99+% of college players come from?  High school football.  Make no mistake, if kids stop playing high school football, the NFL pipeline will dry up.  Particularly in light of safer (at least statistically) alternatives like lacrosse and soccer (especially with the new rule eliminating heading below the age of 10).
  • To me, the only criticism detractors can offer is something along the lines of ‘it’s not real football‘…OK, and?  My reaction is similar to my disbelief with baseball coaches who balk at the institution of pitch counts for high schoolers…seriously?!? With all the data we have; doesn’t it just make too much sense to err on the side of caution?
  • What an interesting dichotomy in the responses from the heads of USA Football and Pop Warner football.  I  agree with the director of USA Football that “this is the future of the game”.  And on the flip side…what a very short-sighted view on the part of the Executive Director of Pop Warner.  Seems to me; one of them gets it and one doesn’t.
  • The comparison to youth baseball is a solid one.  Armour emphasizes this point in her USA Today article.  Currently, youth football doesn’t have a similar progression from t-ball to coach pitch to regular baseball with the pitching mound and base path distance differences…yet.  Flag football and this ‘modified tackle’ format might be the beginnings of this.  Something like going from flag football to this new modified tackle to real tackle at high school sounds reasonable.  See my previous post about the idea of ‘hit counts’ for another corollary to youth baseball that could apply to youth football.
  • I really appreciate seeing a recommendation for the children to play multiple positions.  This is a cornerstone of the Hustle & Attitude philosophy.
  • I’m not sure what to make of Jon Gruden’s comments.  There are a lot of smart people out there suggesting kids shouldn’t play tackle football (at least until high school) – I like to think I am one of them.  I agree with Terry O’Neil that youth shouldn’t play tackle until high school.  However, I don’t think Gruden is using the term ‘genius’ in a complementary way.  I’ve heard him hype football as a great game and enthusiastically support the game on Monday Night Football, but his comments here feel like at worst, those of a corporate shill mouthing the words of the bosses who have a game to protect and sell or, at best unenlightened, ignorant, and/or generally dismissive of the current realities.

Finally, a note of concern from the article:  the national rollout is several years away?!?  What are we waiting for; another 20% of children to lose interest in football?  This is a necessary move in the right direction that should be implemented immediately.

The End of the NFL?

I have written (kind of extensively, really) about the issue of head injuries related to football and the impact on youth sports.  The August 29 issue of Sports Illustrated ran an article by Austin Murphy called Endgame that theorizes about life without a National Football League (re-read that using your best Chris Berman NFL Sunday Countdown voice).  Interestingly, one of the primary causes of the NFL going under is cited as issues pertaining to the prevalence of head injuries related to playing football.  One of the key statements relates to the “cancellation of hundreds of high school football programs” and how that dried up the pool of players.  Murphy mentions the movement, which coincides with my recommendation, to keep young players from playing tackle football until high school.  As I have written, flag football is a very viable alternative to tackle football.

Could it really happen?  I think it is entirely possible.  We could be a generation away from not having tackle football at the high school, college, or…dare I say it, the professional level; a world without the NFL.

Youth Football Participation Goes Up?!?!

Will Smith Say What

Minus the sweet shirt and the high fade, this is how I looked when I read the article from the New York Times citing a survey showing that participation in youth football grew – and grew more than any other U.S. sport!

Several of my previous posts have highlighted that player safety concerns might result in fewer families deciding that their sons should play youth tackle football.  Well, the survey of 30,000 children and teens (part of the annual Physical Activity Council Participation Report) found that participation in flag and tackle football increased in 2015 while most other sports, except baseball, saw a decline in participation.  What’s surprising to me is that participation in youth tackle football rose last year – albeit modestly.  Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program (@AspenInstSports on Twitter) cites the 2007 baby boom as a possible explanation.  Recall that my last post mentioned the same baby boom and how births every year since have gone down which might lead to a decrease in participation numbers.

I’ve said it before; I love football.  I played in high school.  My sons both played flag and tackle football.  However, knowing what we know now about the safety concerns, caution is certainly warranted in allowing our children to play tackle football.  USA Football’s Chief Executive said he believes that medically endorsed programs like the Heads Up Football program and practice guidelines “are making a positive difference”.  We’ll have to see how participation in youth football grows or shrinks over the next few years to understand the true trends and impact of these and other initiatives.

I continue to recommend flag football for youth before high school and, for youth that play tackle football before high school, their coaches should be trained properly and there should be athletic trainers present at practices and games.

Football Head Injury Risk Enters Public Lexicon

Late last year, the movie Concussion dramatized the discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE [if you haven’t seen the movie yet; I recommend it].  The movie attempts to move the discussion from a football fan or football parent-driven one to a more general public discussion.  As a youth recreational sports advocate, this issue hits home as parents consider whether their children should play football.  Two recent magazine articles highlight the shift from a football-only audience to a wider audience:

  • In the February issue of Wired magazine (and last week’s Sports Illustrated) writer Steve Rushin imagines how the game has evolved 50 years from now with a recap of Super Bowl 100 (the NFL having abandoned Roman numerals with the unwieldy Super Bowl LXXXVIII).  In addition to other evolutions in the game (no kickoffs, female players, electronic first down and goal line markers), Rushin refers to the threat to football’s future CTE presents and how the NFL ‘dealt’ with it.  Futuristic innovations including new materials that make helmets mend themselves, EEG capabilities built into the helmets, and an antibody to treat CTE.
  • In the January/February edition of MIT Technology Review (yes, that MIT!), an article asks “Are Young Athletes Risking Brain Damage?”  Referring to a study comparing retired NFL players who started playing football before and after the age of 12 and noting the intense development that occurs in children’s brains between the ages of 8 and 12; the author recommends “youth leagues should switch to flag football and ban tackling for kids under 14”.

My Hustle & Attitude philosophy advocates for safety as a key ingredient to having positive experiences in youth recreational sports.  In previous posts, I have also advocated for flag football as an alternative to tackle football before high school.  And, in terms of long-term player safety, I believe this is the most important issue to the future of the NFL.  It’s not difficult for me to imagine Super Bowl 100 being very different from Rushin’s.  A game where there is no tackling at all – essentially a seven-on-seven skill game where the players have sensors in their gloves and uniforms and play two-hand touch.  Sound crazy?  If an entire generation of parents discourage or don’t allow their kids to play tackle football because of long-term safety concerns…

Super Bowl 100

The APA on Youth Tackle Football & “Hit Counts”

When I started this blog, I didn’t think the majority of my posts would be about youth tackle football, but this is a vital topic of conversation in youth recreational sports.  My last post mentioned the National Association of Youth Sports.  Another organization I follow on Twitter is The Aspen Sports Institute (@AspenInstSports) because they share a similar philosophy of promoting positive youth recreational sports experiences.  Recently, they posted a link to a statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics on Tackling in Youth Football.  Interestingly, while I was mulling over what to say about the AAP’s statement, the Oct. 26, 2015 issue of Time Magazine included a piece by Sean Gregory advocating tracking hits to the head in football similarly to how baseball tracks pitch counts.  The AAP makes some solid recommendations including sort of agreeing with Gregory’s proposal for “hit counts“.

Youth Tackle FootballDespite some rather dubious conclusions (does the statement “a higher proportion of injuries result from contact than noncontact mechanisms” really require 5 citations?!?!), the AAP statement includes a couple of nuggets of information, including:

  • The risk of catastrophic injury during participation in football is comparable to the risk in gymnastics and lower than the risk in ice hockey.
  • The incidence of injuries sustained by children ages 7 to 13 years playing football was similar to, and in fact slightly lower than, that of baseball and boys’ soccer.

The AAP statement is balanced; while presenting data that limiting Flag Football Picturethe contact in practices or not having contact until a certain age may reduce the number of head injuries, they also present the position that delaying the teaching of proper tackling and getting tackled techniques might actually make the risk of injury higher.  Their conclusions / recommendations include changing the culture of of football to one where there is zero tolerance for illegal head-first hits, removing tackling from football altogether (they admit this is quite radical and not likely), expanding nontackling leagues (see my previous post recommending flag football before middle school), making efforts to reduce the number of hits to the head, delaying the age when tackling is introduced, strengthening the athlete’s necks, and making every effort to have athletic trainers on the sidelines of football practices and games.

With respect to the AAP’s recommendation to reduce the number of hits, they are at least partially in line with the idea of “hit counts”.  Gregory offers what he calls a modest proposal:  regulating hits to the head in football just as we count pitches in baseball.  He notes that this would require outfitting helmets with sensors and then determining how many shots a player can sustain before sitting out.  A Google search of football helmet impact sensors resulted in a couple of products ranging from $49.99 to $199.99; so, the idea of including sensors in youth football helmets might make an already expensive sport more so.  But, if it contributes to reducing the number of long-term head injuries to youth football players; what parent wouldn’t pay the additional cost?  Although the AAP cites the need for more research in the area, they reference a study that found a mean of 774 impacts per high school player during a single season (the number varied by position, with linemen sustaining the higher number of impacts) and another where the average number of hits per 7-8 year-old player was 107 with more occurring during practices than games.  The statement also reported that the number of impacts increased with increasing level of play from youth to high school.

I recommend additional research with the expected result being the establishment of standard age-based ‘hit counts’ that would then be measured using sensors installed in helmets.  In the meantime, leagues ought to consider simply counting collisions involving the head during practice and games as a start – and limiting them based on localized results.  As Gregory asks in his piece:  “Baseball started somewhere.  Why can’t football do the same?”

Should My Son Play Youth Tackle Football?

Time Football CoverWhy Football Matters Cover ImageI love football. I know love is a strong word.  My wife tells my kids and I to think about that when for instance, one of my boys says he loves pizza; “we love each other”, she says…we just really like other things like pizza and football. But, you know, I think I really do love football. I grew up with Saturdays on the couch watching college football and Pat Summerall and John Madden broadcasting the NFL on Sundays. I played high school football. I played intramural flag football in college and the first few years of my Air Force career. I have been in the same fantasy football league for almost 20 years. And I’ve coached several seasons of youth flag football.  Of all the sports I have played, coached, or watched, it is definitely my favorite.

However, over the last few years, the depth of my devotion to the sport has been challenged.  And I am not alone.  With the increasing information about concussions and other injuries, many people have been struggling with what Tim Keown calls the “Grand Reconsideration” in his piece in the July 8, 2013 ‘Kids In Sports’ issue of ESPN The Magazine:  i.e. Should I let my son play football?  Many are deciding the answer is “no”.  According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, participation in tackle football fell 26.5% among US kids ages 6 to 12 from 2007 to 2013 and according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, football participation in US high schools was down 2.3% in the 2012-13 season from the 2008-09 season.  According to a Bloomberg Politics poll last December, “50 percent of Americans would not want their sons to play football” (quote taken from ESPN the Magazine article on Chris Borland mentioned below).  Even President Obama, when asked this question, replied “If I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football”.

My high school football coach would correct people that said football was a contact sport; he would say it is a collision sport.  The violence of these collisions is part of what both attracts us to and repels us from the sport.  The act of putting on the shoulder pads and helmet, lining up against an opponent who may be bigger and stronger than you, and willfully engaging in a physical test takes courage.  In his book Why Football Matters: My Education In the Game, Mark Edmundson highlights how football “teaches one thing kids can’t get anywhere else.  It teaches them how to get knocked down and get back up”.  Enduring the challenges football avails as part of a team of peers builds some of the greatest bonds young men can form as well.  Keown captures it this way:  football “gives you something you don’t get anywhere but in a war, a reference point that allows you to face any of life’s difficulties – mental, physical, emotional – through the sweaty prism of a double-day workout in 102-degree heat.  If I could get through that, I can get through this“.  As Amy Stover, the mother of Chad Stover, whose death is the subject of ‘The Tragic Risks of An American Obsession’ article in the Sept 29, 2014 issue of Time magazine, says, “Football really, really promotes community”.  Think something like Friday Night Lights (the fantastic book, the decent movie, and/or the excellent TV show!); the players form a bond, the parents a shared anxiety and excitement, and the town a gathering place and common discussion topic.

At what point, however, are the risks too great to counter the benefits of playing football? As Keown asks:  “If football is something you hope to survive intact, with working limbs and kidneys and a brain that functions into your 50s, how is it defensible?” Earlier this year, Chris Borland decided to retire from the NFL after one season in the league.  He cited the risk of traumatic brain injury as the reason.  According to a National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance Study (as reported in the Time magazine article cited throughout this post), football led to more concussions than any other high school sport in the 2013-2014 school year with 33 per 10,000 players (girls’ soccer was second with 18 per 10,000 players).  Further, the concussion that led Borland to retire occurred on a routine play – and that factored into his (and every parent’s) decision.  Sure you can get a concussion from a bicycling or driving accident; in football, the danger can increase even when you do everything right.  The reality is that it simply isn’t possible to play football without getting hit in the head.

With my boys, my wife and I had decided that they wouldn’t play tackle football until high school (I didn’t play until high school).  They played several seasons of flag football and really enjoyed it.  We changed our minds when the boys were in middle school and the school had 7th and 8th grade teams.  We rationalized the decision by saying that the boys would be coached by people trained in proper football fundamentals and have an athletic training staff available to diagnose and treat injuries (not usually the case with pee wee or Pop Warner youth football).  They both played through their freshman years in high school.  In October of 2013, during their freshman season, in response to reading an editorial on CNN, “Why I’m Saying Goodbye to Football“, I took to Facebook to get advice from my friends.  I wrote:   As you know, I have two boys who are playing high school football . One has had two concussions already. This article is another in a long line where folks are considering or regret letting their kids play football due to the possible long term implications. Am I being irresponsible? Or, is it that for every instance of long-term damage that I read, I think I know of at least a half-dozen or more who made it through their football careers unscathed – and moreover with significant memories and even life lessons about competition and teamwork. I justify the decision as not wanting to limit the boys’ activities due to fear. But, I have always said “There’s a fine line between courage and stupidity”.  The replies were a mix of ‘you can’t protect your kids from everything’ for continuing to play and ‘I’ve already decided my son won’t play when he gets older’ against it.  What we did was try to lessen the risk of head injury by requiring our boys to wear Dome padded skull caps under their helmets and, for my son with the concussion history, a Guardian cap over his helmet during practice (they are not allowed during games in Ohio).

We were likely experiencing aspects of the ‘Grand Reconsideration’; i.e. “some hedging, some hope and some willful ignorance”.  We hedged on our decision to wait until high school.  We hoped that the boys would be protected with the additional measures.  And, we showed some willful ignorance as we demonstrated the conflicted nature of the football parent:  looking forward to the game all week and (sort of) dreading it once it started.  I have no regrets about how my boys did it, though. One of my boys decided not to play as a sophomore (non injury-related; he just decided he didn’t want to play anymore).  After playing as a sophomore, my son with the two previous concussions decided not to play his junior year (this season).  With respect to counseling him, I didn’t want him to stop doing something he really enjoyed because he was afraid.  But, I applaud the maturity of his decision – he said it was because he would like to join the armed forces and understands that they are cautious of the number of concussions a recruit has had.  However, when asked if he misses it (he is a student athletic trainer for the football team), he told me that he sometimes wants to run out there when the coaches call for the position he used to play.  Football is like no other sport in terms of the camaraderie and shared experiences that it provides.  But, it is also quite risky…thus the question remains.

What do I recommend with respect to youth football?

  • Children shouldn’t play tackle football until there are trained, full-time adult coaches with an athletic training staff to diagnose and treat injuries

    • I really think flag football is a great alternative; tackling and offensive/defensive lineman techniques can be taught properly starting at the middle-school age (frankly those coaches will probably appreciate not having to get the boys to unlearn bad habits or techniques picked up in youth football)
  • All levels of tackle football below college should provide something like the Guardian caps for the boys to use during practice; the games are only one night a week, the boys practice multiple times during the week – many more opportunities for collisions
  • Assuming there is still youth football below middle school, continue the emphasis (like USA Football’s Heads Up program) on awareness and training of youth football coaches and parents