Just a few years ago, youth football players wore marks on their helmets as badges of honor. Those smears of paint from other teams showed they’d been making tackles and knocking heads.
Concerns about football players of all ages sustaining concussions and the potential for head injuries have changed perceptions of the sport. Not only is leading with the crown of the helmet illegal for tacklers, it can get them kicked out of games because of the potential for hurting other players.
Football is among the most popular sports in the country with some 1 million youngsters playing at the high school level each year. Yet it is one of the most dangerous, too, because it is a physical contact sport. Athletes in youth sports sustain about 300,000 concussions annually, according to Nationwide Children’s Hospital research.
Finding that Reducing Full Contact Practices Reduces Head Impacts
A 2013 study of head impact exposure in youth football players found that youth football players sustain hits to the head comparable in magnitude to those by high school and collegiate players.
Researchers from Wake Forest University and Virginia Tech outfitted 50 football players ages 9 to 12 in North Carolina and Virginia with accelerometers in their helmets to measure impacts and tracked them throughout a season. The researchers recorded approximately 12,000 hits, for an average of 240 per player. More hits occurred during practice. The researchers concluded that limiting physical contact during practices could significantly reduce head impacts. The study appeared in the Annals of Biomedical Engineering in 2013.
Many states already have rules requiring players who show signs of a concussion to be removed from the game and cleared by a physician before they can return to the field. That could be one or two games for some of them.
Pop Warner Football Introduces Rules to Reduce Physical Contact
Responding to increasing concerns about head injuries, Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football organization with about 275,000 players, including those in North Carolina, introduced new rules effective for the 2013 season, limiting the amount of full contact practices that young players can take part in. The organization noted that more concussions occur during practices.
The movement to reduce physical contact in high school football has reached the point where several states are taking action to restrict the amount of hitting during practice.
California Catches Nation’s Attention
With the backing of medical groups and the California Interscholastic Federation, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill Monday limiting full-contact practices for middle and high school teams, according to a CBS News article.
California Assemblyman Ken Cooley, a Democrat from Rancho Cordova, said he sponsored the legislation because of parents’ concerns about the risks of concussions and the potential for long-term brain damage and early onset dementia.
- Starting in 2015, drills with game-speed tackling will be prohibited in the offseason.
- Once the season starts, full-contact tackling will be limited to 90-minute sessions allowed twice weekly.
- Teams at public, private and charter schools will be affected.
The California Interscholastic Federation, which oversees high school athletics in the state, said the matter is not new for coaches across the state because the organization had already dealt with concussion risks by restricting total practice time to 18 hours a week. In fact, some coaches are already operating under the guidelines.
Cooley responded to other lawmakers’ concerns about whether the restrictions would hurt California athletes’ competitiveness by pointing out that football-crazy Texas adopted even stricter rules.
The University Interscholastic League, which sets the guidelines for Texas high school athletics, restricts full contact to one 90-minute session per week.
Although some football players play the game because they love to hit, coaches are adopting new forms of practice in Texas, including DeSoto High School coach Paul Beattie, who incorporates a tackle circuit into practices. Players run past each other instead of into each other. In addition, they don’t take one another to the ground.
In 2013, the Arizona Interscholastic Association Executive Board voted to adopt recommendations by its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee limiting football practice contact during the preseason and regular season. It was the first high school association in the nation to take such steps to protect student-athletes from concussions and brain injuries, according to a prweb article.
- Under the rule, no more than half of a preseason football practice can be full contact, with padded athletes in contact with each other.
- During the regular season, no more than one-third of practice time can be full contact.
In 2011, the Arizona Interscholastic Association passed a rule requiring players to come out of a game so their health and equipment can be checked if their helmet is dislodged. The National Federation of High School Associations followed suit with a similar rule after seeing the effects of Arizona’s rule-making decision.
At the college level, the Ivy League and PAC-12 took action to cut down full-contact practices in an attempt to avert head injuries.
The NFL, which was targeted by a lawsuit over long-term injuries suffered by former players, was slow to react to national concerns about traumatic blows to the head. The concerns were raised by incidents such as the suicides of San Diego Chargers great Junior Seau and Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, both of whom suffered severe mental problems because of brain damage from years of blows to the head.
As part of the 2011 collective bargaining agreement between the National Football League and NFL Players Association, changes were made to promote player health and safety.
- The off-season program was reduced by five weeks.
- On-field practice time and contact were limited.
- Full-contact practices for preseason and regular season were limited.
Recognizing that it needed to send a message to young people and their parents, the NFL announced in March it will spend $5 million to protect the health of children playing youth football through a Heads Up program. It will feature football camps designed to teach mothers about the game’s fundamentals, with an eye toward encouraging proper tackling techniques that should keep young people from suffering brain injuries.
What North Carolina Does
North Carolina has not taken steps to restrict full-contact tackling in high school football as has been done in Arizona, Texas and California, states where some of the nation’s top football players are produced.
The North Carolina High School Athletic Association allows football practice to start in late July, limiting it to one practice per day in helmets, shorts and T-shirts for the first three days. Practices can last no more than two hours.
- During the fourth through sixth days, one two-hour on-field practice is allowed in helmets, shoulder pads and shorts.
- After the sixth day, complete uniforms can be worn and full contact can start. Two practices are allowed daily, but body-to-body contact is allowed in only one session a day.
- Guidelines also require unlimited water to be available with designated breaks and precautions to prevent heat-related problems.
- State law requires an athletic trainer or first responder to attend all practices and games to handle players’ health problems.
- Players must participate in nine team practices, three of which must be in pads and include full contact before participating in scrimmages.
With the potential for long-term brain injuries and early onset dementia being connected to concussions suffered during football contact, North Carolina’s high school athletic leaders eventually must address this question: Is it safe to keep letting young people bang heads or should practices and fundamentals be restricted to better protect the health of teens?
It’s a question that should be answered soon.