“The coaches that coach this game ... for whatever reason don't embrace change very well,” former NFL linebacker Eddie Mason told the panel. “That's the issue. ... Pop Warner, USA Football can implement all the things that they want to. You can implement rules, you can implement changes, but until the football community embraces the reality of the sport, the reality of concussion, the reality of the damage that comes along with it if you start at an early age, that's the problem.”
Youth football officials are aware their coaching problem goes beyond education. Hallenbeck’s answer was another “concept”: installing a player-safety monitor in every youth league to ensure that coaches are teaching “proper” tackling and using sanctioned practice plans, and who also reassure concerned parents that football is getting safer. “Parents are literally looking at us and saying, ‘Thank you, you're making us feel more comfortable,’ ” Hallenbeck said.
The third and most critical component of the youth-football defense wouldn’t be out of place at a debate over climate change: The science just doesn’t exist to justify banning youth football at any age level. Over and over, Hallenbeck cited the lack of “evidence-based” data. And while Cantu and others agreed that more research is needed, there’s already data that shows the effect of tackle football on undeveloped brains, like a study released this year by researchers at Virginia Tech and Wake Forest that found that 7-year-old players absorb impacts on par with those in college football.
Even that sort of science is used to defend kids’ football. Brooke de Lench, who founded the youth sports website MomsTEAM, said her business outfitted the helmets of an Oklahoma high-school team with accelerometers to track and measure the impact of hits. (She’s making a documentary about the project.) “The kids want the accelerometers, either in their helmet or as an earbud or a mouthpiece,” de Lench told the panel. “They want that responsibility”—of determining when they might have suffered a head injury—“taken away from themselves.”
To sum up: The defenders of youth football envision a sport in which players must be outfitted with expensive electronic sensors to determine when they have suffered brain injury; in which coaches have to pass 15-part examinations in order to be certified; and even after doing that, in which safety watchdogs must be deployed on the sidelines of every practice and game to supervise the performance of coaches. “Burning down the village to save it,” sportswriter Patrick Hruby said after the Washington event.
It’s not as if there aren’t alternatives. Maybe have kids play flag football wearing no pads until they’re 10, then with shoulder pads until 13. At 14 or 15, if they are determined to be physically mature, players can don helmets and wrap up opponents to bring them to ground. Any blow to the head or leading with the head is an automatic ejection. Full hitting can start on high-school varsities. Tackling can be taught over time—flag football teaches the proper entry point for contact, around the hips; rugby-style tackling might be instructive—to prepare kids for full contact when their bodies are ready, or at least readier, for it.
None of this is likely, at least anytime soon. Science or no science, the real reason 5- and 6-year-olds will keep padding up and hitting is consumer demand. If Pop Warner offered only flag football, its executive director, John Butler, candidly told the panel, “90 to 95 percent of our members would drop out” and play for independent teams “because whether it be kids or parents, they want to play tackle football.”
Of course they do. They watch it on Sundays. It’s fun. But as Eddie Mason responded, “Sometimes you have to take the decisions out of the hands of the parents and you have to just make the change. You say, well, we don't offer tackle at this age, we offer flag, and these are the reasons why.” Mason said he isn’t letting his 8-year-old son play tackle football.