Concussion concerns: Youth football leagues opt for new tackling technique
From the NFL down to youth leagues, football season is almost here. But as kids go back to school and the excitement for weekend games builds, fewer kids will be taking the field for tackle football nationwide this year.
Much of the blame for the drop is being put on rising awareness about concussions and parents concerned about protecting their kids.
Football leagues at all levels - including the NFL - have taken notice.
This year leagues around the country rolled out a new tackling technique aimed at making the sport safer. It's called the "Heads Up Tackling" technique developed by USA Football. The organization is backed by the NFL and NFL Players' Association.
The "Heads Up" technique is aimed at keeping a player's head away from the primary point of contact. It replaces the old technique where players were taught to put their helmet on the ball.
That old technique resulted in many head-first collisions.
While some of the decline in youth football participation can be attributed to the economy, as well as a trend for young athletes to specialize in one sport, coaches know concussions are a big concern.
"I've seen a huge drop off," said Jim Weaver. Weaver coaches the youngest kids in the St. Helens Football League. "We've lost 50% of the kids who were playing. We went from 60 kids playing at 3rd and 4th grade level two years ago, and we're at 25 on this one team. We used to have three teams at 3rd and 4th grade and now we have one."
The trend is noticeable on a national level. According to USA Football, participation had held steady at about three million players each year. Last year, the number of players took a big dip, down to 2.8 million.
"Mom and dad are terrified their kid is going to get hurt," said Weaver. "They tend to wait until 6th grade or 7th grade to play."
St. Helens football is part of Tualatin Valley Youth Football. In 2009 the organization had about 270 teams. Now the league says there are about 220.
One of the parents keeping his son out of tackle football is Charles Hardges. Hardges played for Grant High School in Portland and then played football at a junior college in Bakersfield, Calif. Hardges remembers getting a concussion in a game against Wilson High School in 1990.
"I led with my head, tackled a guy and I was out," he said.
Hardges recently took his 7-year-old son Vashon to tackle football tryouts. Even though Vashon was one of the biggest kids on the field, his dad did not have a good feeling. He is concerned about head and neck injuries down the road.
"I saw how he was tackling, he had positioned his head wrong, he was wrapping wrong, he was doing awkward things and I was saying if I let him do this now he will never get the concept," Hardges said.
Weaver argues it is better to start kids at a younger age, before they learn bad habits by watching games on TV.
"By that time they are so far behind everyone else they struggle. They actually tend to get hurt more," he said.
Football is the number one cause of concussions in male high school athletes.
For girls, lacrosse is the top sport for concussions.
Dawn Comstock, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health, is one of the few people researching leading causes of concussions in kids.
Her analysis comes from information submitted by certified athletic trainers at individual high schools across the country. The trainers who treat high school athletes for injuries submit reports to an online injury database.
"Unfortunately, there's very little data for athletes younger than high school age," said Comstock. "There just isn't the funding for it."
A recent study tried to get an idea of the number of concussions in younger kids by looking at emergency room visits in 2011.
Comstock says the report does not give a complete picture because it is only one year of data and most concussions do not result in a trip to the emergency room.
This year USA Football says one-quarter of all youth football leagues have adopted the "Heads Up Tackling" technique.
"I like the changes," said Weaver. "I would rather it be more difficult to make a tackle if it makes it safer for the kids."
Will Hardges ever let his son play tackle? "Yes. I'm just going to wait until he's older, another 5 years, maybe sooner. It depends on how he develops."