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Last week, I took part in a roundtable discussion in Washington on the future of youth football. Robert Cantu, the CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) researcher and NFL adviser, was there. So were Chris Nowinski, the Harvard defensive tackle turned pro wrestler turned brain-injury activist; neurosurgeon Julian Bailes, who has advised the NFL Players Association, the NCAA, and Pop Warner football; and DeMaurice Smith, the head of the NFLPA. An NFL executive attended, as did various youth-football organizations. There was an ex-Jet/Jaguar/Redskin, a plaintiffs’ lawyer, a school board member, the head of a sporting goods trade group, academics, and a bunch of journalists like me.
The event was organized by the Aspen Institute and moderated by ESPN reporter Tom Farrey. His topic question: “How can football serve children, communities, and public health?” Three hours of talk yielded, for me anyway, an unsurprising answer: Tackle football can best serve children, communities, and public health by disappearing.
I know that Matt Chaney, who wrote for the roundtable this week about the tackling technique that won’t make football safer, is on board with the idea that tackle football is simply too dangerous for the brains of children, and that a distinction needs to be made between what adult men choose to do professionally and what kids are permitted or often pushed to do by parents and other adults. In his new book, Concussions and Our Kids, co-written with journalist Mark Hyman, Cantu proposes barring tackle football before age 14, or the start of high school. The cutoff is arbitrary, Cantu said at the Washington panel. The more important consideration is an individual child’s physical development: If he’s skeletally immature, if he hasn’t developed axillary hair, he shouldn’t play tackle football.
“Youngsters are not miniature adults,” Cantu said. For starters, he explained, their brains are not fully myelinated, meaning their nerve cells lack the complete coating that offers protection. That makes them more susceptible to concussions and means they recover more slowly from them than adults. Cantu said children have big heads relative to the rest of their bodies and weak necks, creating a “bobblehead-doll effect” that elevates the risk of concussion. They typically play in the oldest equipment, with the least educated coaches, and with little or no available medical care. They are allowed to hit each other in practice—up to 40 minutes per session in Pop Warner football, under new guidelines—to a greater extent than NFL players are in season. And finally, kids are unable to provide meaningful informed consent. “Rarely do they really understand the risk they're taking,” Cantu said.
That brief presentation was a devastating synopsis of the perils of football for small children. (How small? Pop Warner, the formal name of which is, I joke not, Pop Warner Little Scholars Inc., is open to children as young as 5 years old and as light as 35 pounds.) And none of it was refuted by the representatives of children’s football who participated in the event. Instead, what emerged was the playbook for the youth-football-industrial complex—3 million players and tens of millions of dollars in revenue, backed by the NFL, college football, equipment manufacturers, and other sports businesses—in what will be a long battle against the forces of science, medicine, and common sense.
First is the rhetoric. Scott Hallenbeck, the executive director of USA Football, the governing body/trade group funded by the NFL and NFLPA, thanked Cantu for raising “important issues,” declared that a “healthy debate” was necessary, and reminded us that “we’re all in this together.” Our goal? “A better and safer environment for parents and players.” Indeed, “safety” is the key word in the kids’ tackle football PR effort; it’s all over the websites of organizations like Pop Warner, American Youth Football, and USA Football. Who’s against safety?
The words are buttressed by limited, practical changes, like USA Football’s “Heads Up” program and Pop Warner’s limits on head contact and hitting in practice. Better than nothing, sure. But Matt and ex-NFL player Nate Jackson have already debunked the notion that football can always be played with the head up. And kids aren’t usually capable, physically or mentally, of implementing precise technique, as five minutes on the sideline of any youth sports game will demonstrate. As for rules, well, Pop Warner’s concussion-prevention guidelines call for “no full speed head-on blocking or tackling drills in which the players line up more than 3 yards apart.” You can bet some suburban Belichick is lining up his players exactly three yards apart and instructing them to go at 90 percent speed, or ignoring the rules entirely.
Which leads to part two of the youth-football change mantra: better coaching. Hallenbeck said USA Football has “trained” almost 100,000 coaches in the last five years. It also has “looked at the concept” of a national accreditation program with “15 chapters” and “15 quizzes” with a passing grade of 80. “So you could argue there's 80 percent competency in a program like that,” he said. Or you could argue that the numbers are a way to conceal the reality that youth sports coaches are mostly amateur volunteers, usually parents, with little knowledge about sports or coaching or injuries but lots of preconceived ideas gleaned from years of watching the pros. How else to explain that Pop Warner mismatch in Massachusetts in which five kids suffered concussions?
“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.