It was a grim two months for football in America.
Not on the field, but in newspapers and on websites and in a roundtable discussion of sports journalists at the University of Maryland.
On Sept. 19, Boston University released the results of a long-term study that concluded athletes who began playing football before the age of 12 had more behavioral and cognitive problems later in life.
Two days later, a lawyer representing the family of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez announced the results of a Boston University brain study revealed that the player had the most CTE damage they had seen in a 27-year-old.
Convicted of a friend’s murder and acquitted of a double homicide, Hernandez hung himself in April with a bed sheet in his Massachusetts jail cell.
Then in early November, sportscaster Bob Costas, appearing at the Maryland roundtable, contended the decline of football is the most significant story in U.S. sports.
“The reality,” Costas said, “is that the game destroys people’s brains.”
Added the man who hosted “Football Night in America” for more than a decade: “I certainly would not let, if I had an athletically gifted 12- or 13-year-old son, I would not let him play football.”
Those are painful words for people in football who have spent recent years walking the tight rope of acknowledging their game can be a violent, high-contact sport while explaining to concerned parents and fans that they are taking more steps than ever to make it safer.
Football ‘under attack’
“We can discuss the reasons why all we want, but I think that football’s under attack from some people that don’t enjoy football having as much popularity as it has,” San Diego State head coach Rocky Long said recently.
“I think they make a huge deal out of a lot of things that are not just specific to football. If you look at other sports that nobody’s attacking right now, they have the same issues.
“But people are upset that football is so popular, so there are some scare tactics going on. If you’re a parent and you get scared, you’re probably going to prevent your children from playing until a certain age, for sure.”
There unquestionably has been a decline in youth football participation over the last decade.
According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), the number of boys ages 6-17 playing tackle football fell 18 percent in a six-year span (2009-14), from 3.96 million to 3.25 million. The following year, the number was down again to 3.21 million.
There was a slight upward bump among younger children (ages 6-12) in 2015, with the SFIA reporting an increase of 14,000 participants from the previous year.
At the high school level, the National Federation of State High School Associations reported there were 25,901 fewer football players (2.5 percent) in 2016-17 from the prior season.
In San Diego and southern Riverside counties, estimates from various league administrators from American Youth Football and Pop Warner — the two organizations fielding teams here — range from a 30-percent drop in teams over the decade to a 5-percent reduction in recent years.
Associations that once fielded two teams at each age level sometimes now have difficulty finding enough players to support one team.
The participation decline in football is part of an overall youth sports trend. According to SFIA data, 45 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 12 played a team sport regularly in 2008. Now only 37 percent do.
Concussion stories, research frighten parents
There are various reasons posited for the declines: the cost and time commitment for families, sports specialization with college scholarships in mind, and a lack of qualified coaches.
Football, however, faces another crucible: the continued talk and research about concussions and CTE, and the headlines those produce.
“It’s story after story after story by the print media and on television,” said Paul Watkins, the Phoenix-based director for Pop Warner’s Wescon Region, which includes San Diego.
“Obviously, the concussion piece has affected enrollment for several years. Along with that, there are issues going on above us with college and professional football. It looks like it’s bottoming out now, depending on how the media wishes to report it.”
David Arnold, a Poway resident, said he carefully weighed the pros and cons of tackle football, including a concern for concussions, before deciding to have his 11-year-old son, Mason, play flag football in a relatively new league in North County called Friday Night Lights.
“For Mason and our lifestyle, flag football was a much better fit,” he said.
Arnold, commissioner of a FNL league in inland North County, said he hears various reasons from other people who sign their kids up for flag.
“There is definitely a group who wants their kid to play football, but are worried about contact,” Arnold said. “They say that they’ll let them play when they get to high school.”
DeWayne Bickers of Rancho Bernardo has no issue with his 10-year-old son, Jaden, playing tackle football. A lack of available teams led Bickers to place his son in a flag league, but he said he expects Jaden to participate in tackle football when he reaches a level at which there are enough kids playing.
“I feel like if a child wants to consider playing tackle, this is a great introduction,” Bickers said. “For older kids who have never played football, it’s a great steppingstone.”
San Diegan Phil Lomax, who served as coaching director and commissioner for San Diego Youth Football, along with being selected to the advisory council for USA Football, said he believes there was as much as a 30-percent drop in participation in San Diego over several years, but added, “I think we’re starting to see the numbers come back.”
Lomax said he believes the 2012 movie “Concussion” had an effect on participation, as did the other news coming out, including the 2012 suicide of popular Charger Junior Seau and the subsequent report that he suffered from CTE.
“All that had parents scared to get their kids involved,” said Lomax, whose son, Trey, is a senior safety on San Diego State’s football team.
“It just wasn’t helping. Parents were basing their decisions on what they were seeing on TV and all of the TBI (traumatic brain injury) and concussion information that was coming out. A lot of that is certainly real, but it was also overlooking all the other sports.”
Indeed, at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, held in San Diego in March, a report was released that concluded, over a study time from 2010-15, concussion rates were higher among high school girls than boys, and that girls’ soccer players suffered more concussions per capita than football players.
“While American football has been both scientifically and colloquially associated with the highest concussion rates, our study found that girls, especially those who play soccer, may face a higher risk,” Dr. Wellington Hsu, the lead author of the study, told the gathering.
The study compared concussion rates from 2005-09 and 2010-15. The reported rates were far higher in the latter period, and the researchers attributed that to a greater awareness and the education of coaches, parents and officials to look for symptoms.
“I don’t think there are any more concussions now than there were 20 years ago,” Lomax said. “We’re much more aware of them, which is a good thing. It’s going to keep kids safer for longer. We’ll follow a protocol and keep them out.
“I still think, “he added, “that a kid is more likely to fall off his bike and get a concussion rather than running around on the football field.”
Football responds with safety measures
Youth football organizations have gone on the offensive to make the game safer. Pop Warner adopted numerous changes in 2012, including cutting the number of practices to three per week, and the contact time in each workout to 40 minutes. Head-on blocking or tackling can’t be done at a full sprint, only within 3 yards.
Those changes are viewed by some coaches as the softening of football.
“Youth coaches have a tendency to go back to the way they were coached. They’re reluctant to change from that,” Lomax said. “We’ve done a good job in San Diego Pop Warner and AYF of getting coaches to understand that if you’re going to do it that way, you can’t participate in these leagues anymore.”
More drastic changes to football could be on the horizon. USA Football, which oversees all youth football in the country, began testing this year numerous alterations, including a smaller field, seven players on the field, no special teams, and mandated position rotations. The elimination of the three-point stance for linemen also is being considered.
A full rollout of the changes could be years away.
One of the programs most touted by youth administrators is Heads Up Football, a started in 2013, managed by USA Football and funded by the NFL (at a cost of $45 million). Heads Up offers a series of in-person and online courses for coaches to teach them safety procedures and proper tackling techniques.
The program has been sold to leagues across the country as a way to significantly reduce injuries. It offers proof in the results of an independent study that showed Heads Up pared all injuries in practices and games by 76 percent and concussions by 30 percent.
A 2016 investigation by the New York Times, however, revealed the numbers being used were from a preliminary issue of the study results, and when the full report was released, the success rate was far lower: a 45-percent injury reduction for Heads Up-only leagues. There was more success with injuries when Heads Up was incorporated with the new Pop Warner policies.
In the Pop Warner conference that Watkins runs in Phoenix, they have taken concussion protocol one step farther by teaming up with physicians from the Mayo Clinic. The doctors do baseline tests of all players before the season, and if a concussion is later suspected, another test is administered.
Watkins said he feels fortunate to have the Mayo Clinic connection, and that it would be beneficial for other Pop Warner organizations to pursue such a partnership.
Helmets, of course, play a large role in the safety of players, and there have never been more choices than there are right now. Parents can buy their own helmets or use those distributed by their league.
“It’s almost like buying a car,” Watkins said. “There’s a wide array of helmets out there. You can spend as much as $600 to buy a helmet.”
An internet search revealed a Schutt adult football helmet, which touts five layers of protection, including a padded outside the shell, sells for $580. A Riddell youth helmet, with “patented side protection,” goes for as much as $395.
Children can play safely with far less expensive helmets, Watkins said, adding that all helmets and shoulder pads are inspected each season and refurbished regularly.
The value of youth football
Considering the advancement of equipment, training and concussion protocols, Watkins said, “I think football is safer than it’s ever been.”
He also contends the value of youth football goes well beyond the results on the field. He noted Pop Warner offers scholarships to players, requires they maintain good grades and teaches kids about teamwork and community.
“It’s a team sport that crosses all racial and socioeconomic barriers,” he said. “Once you get on the football field, it’s all for the team. Kids learn a lot about each other.
“What we’re basically doing is trying to prepare these young men to be successful as men. Only a handful of people are blessed to play in the NFL, so we want to make sure these kids enjoy the sport.”
SDSU’s Long has been around football for most of the 67 years of his life and sees it surviving long after he’s gone.
“I believe football will get through this like it always has,” he said. “This is about the third or fourth time in the history of football that it’s been under attack. …
“I think there will be improvement in protective gear that will make it less likely for injuries that will calm some people down, and it will come back.”
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