In youth leagues, signs of a dying sport

Youth football organizers are getting the message that parents are delivering. They don’t want their kids brains scrambled by tackle football.

In Eau Claire, Wis., the YMCA has eliminated tackle football for fifth and sixth graders. And the Eau Claire school district is replacing tackle with flag football for seventh-graders, the Leader Telegram reports.

In the last decade, participation in the Y’s tackle football program declined by 50 percent.

In the school district, so many kids used to participate that each school would have two or three teams in seventh-grade programs. This year there’s only one.

“Our goal is to increase participation by making it safer. Hopefully that will appeal to more students, and when they go to high school, hopefully they’ll be interested in continuing football,” said Kit Schiefelbein, an assistant principal.

To what end? The program will funnel football kids into a tackle program in the eighth grade. And there they are, in a sport that can damage a young brain.

Or so we’re told.

In an op-ed in the Star Tribune last weekend, a group of neurosurgeons, including Uzma Samadani, an associate professor in neurosurgery at the University of Minnesota and Rockswold Kaplan, endowed chair for traumatic brain injury at Hennepin County Medical Center, said the link between football and brain injuries in kids isn’t clear cut.

There is a disconnect between the categorical rhetoric in media and news releases describing “concussion” research on the one hand, and the muddled and contentious scientific reality on the other. As noted by Dr. Goldstein’s own research, the pathology and link between head impacts and long-term neurological conditions such as CTE is still unclear, with questions of causation yet to be settled.

This is not to say that head impacts or injuries are desirable — far from it. But there is scientific ambiguity about the prevalence of CTE in the general population in comparison to professional athletes and also about the significance of its presence. In fact, after reviewing all available evidence, the consensus statement from the international conference on concussion in sports states:

“A cause-and-effect relationship has not yet been demonstrated between [CTE] and sport-related concussions or exposure to contact sports. As such, the notion that repeated concussion or subconcussive impacts cause CTE remains unknown.”

In California, lawmakers are considering banning tackle football until high school.

A Pop Warner coach says flag football is a bad idea.

“Honestly, they like to hit,” he said. “They like controlled hitting. They’re all going to go down with their buddies and have a pickup game with no pads on. Kids are going to play football one way or another.”

The declining participation rate in Eau Claire suggests that they’re not.