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.

  • Gary F
    • Dan Lind

      I like the idea. However TackleBar is suggesting that only big hits and high impact collisions are responsible for causing concussions. Research is proving that all of the little repetitive hits (e.g. lineman vs lineman on every snap of the ball) are every bit as serious.

      • Gary F

        I just put it out there for discussion. My son is past his football days. He never had the drive to excel at it like I did. I played a year of junior college football and got some sort of injury every year. In tenth grade I was knocked out cold and wound up sitting on the bench with my pads off. I had no idea how I got there. Me and another teammate both got concussions in the same game, and took the same ambulance to North Memorial. That was on a Thursday, and was practicing on Tuesday. I knew I probably had more minor concussions, but wouldn’t dare tell the coach, I’d lose my starting position.

        Now I’m 53. I smoked more than my share of pot in the 80’s, drank more than my share of booze, and drank more than my share of diet pop. I’ve scaled the booze and diet pop down to an occasional thing, and haven’t smoked weed in decades. I do wonder if or when I may have some sort of problem.

  • Barton

    “controlled hitting?” In youth football? what a crock.

    You want controlled hitting – with enforceable rules regarding tackling – then teach your kids to play rugby.

    • Agreed. One thing that really bothers me when watching a football game is the player’s complete lack of tackling skills.

      /Former hooker.

    • Jim Stock

      Yes! proud rugby dad here. My daughter is a spectatular tackler. and wants to play in college. Great sport!

    • William_TellAll

      Players learn to tackle without their heads being a target. Rugby players with no helmet have far less head contact. With that said the brain is still be bounced around in the cranium so it would seem likely that they still will suffer from CTE in the long run.

      • Barton

        They may. Doddie Weir, a Scottish international player has recently been diagnosed with a motor neuron disease: I am not saying there is an exact link, but perhaps? But if CTE was a serious issue in rugby, I think we’d (the fans for certain) would be hearing a LOT about it, as most of the serious players live in countries with universal health care, and are more likely (potentially) to be diagnosed earlier.

        In addition, there are head injury protocols that are followed in all rugby union matches (also in rugby league, I believe). It is the doctor/medical person at the match who decides when someone must have an assessment which means leaving the pitch completely – and it is the non-partisan (theoretically) doctor/medical person who determines if the player can come back to play or not.

  • jon

    I wonder what kind of super mega genius my generation would have produced if it weren’t for all the blows to the head and decade old concussion protocols that were little different from “walk it off”.

    Guess I should just be thankful that i can’t remember any of the serious blows to the brain that I took as a kid…

    • Bob Sinclair

      My snarky reply to that question is of course our current president. However, I bier that there are super geniuses, who never had the “fortune” of playing football. They toil away doing the extraordinary in their ordinary lives.

      • jon

        I never played football… doesn’t mean I never had a concussion…

        Bicycles falls (without helmets), tumbling down stairs, etc…

        Heck my parents drove fast* cars without seatbelts (back when “padded dashboard” was a safety feature on cars), and probably were plagued with head trauma because of it…

        *actually old school muscle cars weren’t that fast compared to what we have today… but don’t tell boomers that their well tuned camaro/Charger from yesteryear would get smoked by a well equipped honda accord from today… Though a muscle car will beat a modern econo box… (where as my economy motorcycle is spec’d higher than the “fastest production motorcycle in the world” my father owned when he got back from the draft…) But I’ve let myself fall way off topic…

  • Al

    Hey football kids, I’ve got your next sport over here. We could always use more dancers:
    http://ftw.usatoday.com/2013/07/steve-mclendon-pittsburgh-steelers-balle

  • Zachary

    “Kid – I don’t want you doing any dangerous sports like football. So we signed you up for skeleton.”

  • KevinEarlWood

    From the Mayo Clinic News Network (Kevin Punsky) — “Bieniek led the team that examined the clinical records of 1,721 cases in the Mayo Clinic Brain Bank. They found 66 males who had documented participation in contact sports during their youth and young adult years. Of these cases, 32 percent had CTE pathology when the researchers examined brain tissue. In comparison, none of the 198 brains of individuals without documentation of participation in contact sports, including 66 women, had CTE pathology.” No parent should take A 1 in 3 chance of damaging their child’s brain in PeeWee, Pop Warner or public school tackle football or other contact sports.