American Pop Warner Football is a tradition that goes back generations in some families. But as parents question the safety of the sport, the league is changing the rules to make it safer for child athletes.
Would you let your children play a sport that could affect their health for the rest of their life? Millions of families do. But now that the NFL has admitted that contact football can cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), many parents are having second thoughts.
In 2010, nearly 3 million kids, ages 6 to 14 played in Pop Warner football leagues across the country. But fears over child athletes’ safety have severely reduced the player count: down to 2.2 million in 2015. That’s almost a 30% drop in athletes.
On top of trouble recruiting players, Pop Warner, the country’s largest youth football organization, is also facing legal trouble. A class-action lawsuit was filed against the organization on September 1, 2016. The complaint, filed on behalf of families whose child athletes faced long-term harm from concussions suffered on the field.
To address these concerns, earlier this year, Pop Warner announced changes to the way the game would be played. The organization has banned kickoffs which applies to the three youngest divisions with players ages 5 to 10 years old. Instead of traditional kickoffs, the ball will be placed at the 35 yard line at the beginning of each half and after each score. The league would also reduce contact time by 25 – 33% for all age groups.
The hope is that the change, which started this football season, will keep young players from charging headlong down the field and into traumatic brain injuries. Concussions cause serious problems in children, teens, and adults engaged in contact sports. Even one blow to the head can cause substantial developmental delays and ongoing medical problems.
Political figures have even gotten into the debate. President Obama urged parents to “think long and hard” about letting their children play contact football. Presidential candidate Donald Trump has a different perspective. After a supporter passed out at a rally, Trump said:
“See, we don’t go by these new, and very much softer, NFL rules. Concussions — ‘Uh oh, got a little ding on the head? No, no, you can’t play for the rest of the season’ — our people are tough.”
Susan H. Connors, President of the Brain Injury Association of America (BIAA) says every concussion should be taken seriously:
“BIAA is disappointed in Mr. Trump’s ridicule of the NFL’s concussion protocols and especially of his connotation that those who sustain a concussion are weak.”
And that includes the child athletes competing in Pop Warner football leagues. The organization has promised it will continue to fight back against concussions. It will review the results of its kickoff ban and may apply the rule change to older age groups in 2017.