By C. Douglas Weber - October 14, 2013
The research linking football and concussions is so strong that sports equipment companies like Shutt Sports and Rawlings have plastered the insides of their football helmets with warning labels, and riddled their websites with pop-ups plainly stating that the only way to completely avoid the risk of brain injury is to not play. In legal terms, the helmet manufacturers are telling consumers that they are “assuming the risk” of serious injury by playing the game. In August, the NFL and over 4,500 former players agreed to resolve concussion-related lawsuits with a $765 million settlement. Compensation for concussions and concussion-related illnesses, as well as medical exams and research, would all be funded by the NFL in the settlement.
Polling indicates a growing number of parents are steering their children away from football and towards alternatives like soccer which involve fewer violent collisions. USA Football, a non-profit funded and promoted by the NFL, estimates youth participation dropped to 2.82 million players in 2012, from 3 million in 2011. That’s still a whole bunch of children playing football and, sadly, no one seems to agree on how to keep the game as safe as possible. While USA Football has started the Heads Up program, designed to teach children to how safely tackle each other, many see it only as a smart public relations move in the wake of their giant settlement with previously-concussed players.
Pop Warner instituted new rules for all its nationwide teams, allowing only one-third of practices to include full-speed contact. However, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh are saying that Pop Warner, with obvious good intentions, has inadvertently taken a step which might actually make the problem worse, concluding that the children were 26 times more likely to sustain a concussion in a game than in practice. Instead of reducing practice time, the researchers are calling for Pop Warner to simply refocus practice and spend more time educating players on proper tackling technique.
Football is a wonderful game and a sports obsession for many. To make the game as safe as it can be for our children, however, will require that coaches, leagues and medical professionals cooperate to develop objective research models and then fund them adequately. We need the best possible information regarding how to safely teach our kids this game, and when is the appropriate age to start.