The Park District of Highland Park cancelled its tackle football program last week after only 11 kids signed up, a steep drop compared to last year when 33 players enrolled.
Tackle football has increasingly come under fire over the years as awareness has risen over concussions and other injuries caused by the sport, and that’s causing more parents to rethink signing their children up for the sport.
New York Times reporter Ken Belson said the declining participation in tackle football — down 20 percent since 2009 among boys between the ages of 6 and 12 — is partly due to concerns about sports-related injuries. USA Football, the national governing body for amateur football in the United States, said in a statement that it has been open to making the sport safer for children.
Belson spoke with Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia about the hit tackle football has taken at the youth level and the changes organizers are making to convince parents it’s safe.
Fewer players, poorly-trained coaches increase risk of injuries
Ken Belson: I think the rising worries about the safety of the sport are what’s driving [the decline in participation by kids], but in terms of leagues deciding it’s not worth continuing to operate, there are leagues on the margins that are just shutting down. When you get to a point where you only have, say, 15 kids on a team, and then you’re keeping kids on the field playing both offense and defense longer, then you have kids that may get more injuries because they’re more exhausted as the game goes on.
There was a story I wrote several years ago about a Pop Warner game in Massachusetts, which was one of those typical pee-wee blowouts where it was like 52-0, and there were five kids who had gotten concussions on the losing team. And in fact they were supposed to stop because they had run out of players, but they kept going.
Youth football and youth sports in general are largely unpoliced when you get down to the really local level. Often the coaches are volunteers and aren’t necessarily fully trained, not just in the game of football but in safety measures, too.
Replacing tackle football with cheaper, safer alternatives
Belson: In addition to buying equipment and paying dues for Pop Warner and other leagues, which can run into the hundreds of dollars, the insurance costs have risen to cover the coaches and the leagues from liability suits, which is unfortunately a factor of life in America.
You’re seeing changing demographics have something to do with [the decline in participation as well]. Growing Hispanic populations where soccer is more preeminent, and also there’s a very robust flag-football season in the spring in places like Texas, which include girls as well as boys.
In Marshall, Texas and East Texas, the Boys & Girls Club shut down their tackle football program, partly because of the cost, and put their money into soccer and flag football. They felt like they could reach more kids that way more efficiently. I think the fellow who ran the Boys & Girls Club, his primary goal was to make sure kids were active. And if he can get more kids on the field playing soccer and flag football and other sports, then to him that’s a better goal than worrying about the institution of tackle football.
How youth football leagues are trying to make the game safer
Belson: Pop Warner has actually been at the front of it in terms of reducing the contact in practice. And that may sound tangential but in fact the majority of injuries actually occur in practice.
Then of course coaches of USA Football and others have tried to train their coaches to try and teach kids to tackle better. Some of that is probably noble, but I think, unfortunately or fortunately, the reality is football is a collision sport. At some level you’re just never going to remove “the head from the game,” as they like to say.
Then there are a huge variety of independent football leagues that have very little supervision, and frankly, if you go on YouTube, you’ll find plenty of clips of these wild hits by 10-year-olds that are celebrated by their parents, so it really depends on where you want to put your kid.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click the “play” button to hear the entire segment, which was produced by Jason Marck. Web story written by Justin Bull and Hunter Clauss.