Future of Youth Football Unclear as 100th NFL Season Begins

As the NFL plans a celebratory week of past and present for its centennial, the future of football remains unclear.

At every level, from pro to pee-wee, football is America’s most popular sport, but worries about brain injury could dent the game’s staggering popularity. Some may wonder if the game’s best days are behind it, but coaches, players, parents and doctors are interested to see if increased concussion awareness and concrete moves on and off the field can keep football on top of the sports world.

Football is by far America’s most popular youth sport. More than a million kids play on high school teams. However, a study released last week by the National Federation of State High School Associations shows Illinois high schools have lost a quarter of the rosters since 2007. National statistics show the same trend, the lowest number of players in 18 years.

“Numbers are down,” said Geoff Meyer, president of The Chicagoland Youth Football League (TCYFL). Meyer has been running the league for 20 years. He says it is one of the country’s largest.

“2009 and 2010 [were] the high for everybody; everybody was trying football,” he said. “Back then we had 32 member communities. We had 9,800 kids, 396 football teams. Now we’re 47 member communities – more member communities – but now we’re about 6,500 players and 260 teams.”

In other words, Meyer has lost roughly one-third of his kids in 10 years. Cost and sport specialization could play a factor in those numbers and high school figures too, but worries about head injury remain a big concern.

“As a parent, as a mom, you always walk into it a little concerned,” said Arielle Heneghan, whose son plays for a TCYFL team in Wilmette. This is Heneghan’s third year letting her son play. He’s now in 7th grade. She was re-assured by TCYFL giving all their coaches extensive training on concussions and tackling, and having a trainer at every game and practice.

“If football continues the way it is today and we educate the children in the heads up approach and the tackle by pulling down. Football has a great opportunity to stay,” Heneghan said.

Meyer said TCYFL has tried to be at the forefront of safety at the youth level. Whether that be off the field measures like training and certification, or on the field changes like eliminating kick-offs and tackling technique.

“One thing about youth football coaches, we get kind of put through the ringer a little bit,” Meyer said. “ [They] were considered a Neanderthal and they don’t care about a kid’s health and safety. I can assure you me being involved in youth football since 1991 that’s not the case.”

Meyer and Heneghan also point to the size of the players. They said smaller players moving slowly as young kids don’t generate as much force as older, stronger and faster players, thereby reducing the risk of serious brain injury. Of course concussions do happen and kids still get hurt, but the available data show head injury is generally less of a threat in the lower levels of football compared to higher ones, according to Dr. Cynthia Labella with Lurie Children’s Hospital.

“The reality is that the injury rate -- especially the concussion rate in youth football -- is pretty low, between one and four percent of players per season,” Labella said. “[That] is very similar to other contact sports at that age: soccer, hockey, lacrosse, even flag football.”

Labella is thrilled that concussion awareness that has grown steadily in the sport over the last 20 years, but she doesn’t want parents to over-stress. Many parents who see their kids sucked to seemingly addictive electronic devices and a more sedentary lifestyle love sports, even football, to teach their kids about teamwork, physical activity and goal setting.

“The benefits of being in an organized sport at a young age, even football, really outweigh the risk of injury,” she said.

Labella said repeated sub-concussive impacts – dozens or hundreds of seemingly small impacts to the brain over a long period of time – doesn’t have extensive data to make activity like football objectively dangerous. She said more study needs to be done on what all contact sports do to a child’s brain. She added that continued focus on cognitive injuries will keep the sport safer and ultimately, more popular.

“Parents, athletes, coaches all know how to recognize signs and symptoms of concussion and that’s a great thing,” LaBella said.

Meyer said he’s not exactly sure what the future of football will look like, but is confident it will stick around for a long time. He says six of his member communities showed a roster rebound this year with more kids signing up.

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