Dec. 18–A poll conducted by Robert Morris University shows rising support for a ban on “tackle” football for children younger than high school, even as researchers are only starting to study injuries like concussions among young players.
The online poll of more than 1,000 people nationwide found that 49.4 percent supported a ban on contact football for kids before high school, up from 40.5 percent a year ago.
And 55.6 percent of respondents said contact should be banned in football before middle school, up from 47.8 percent in 2013; 46.7 percent of respondents to the recent poll said they’d recommend children not play contact football at all.
“We see an increase of support for potential rule changes to the game. I think that’s reflecting the increased media and research attention it’s getting,” said Dr. Samantha Monda, an associate professor specializing in sports and game psychology at RMU. “But we need to make sure any rule changes like banning contact is supported by empirical evidence.”
Monda said that while many studies have looked at the prevalence and consequences of head injuries among professional, college- and high school-level athletes, few studies have focused on younger players until recently. Younger players have brains that are still developing, she noted.
Even if the data was sparse, the growing support for a ban on contact football among younger players showed there was growing concern about the potential for injury.
“This shows the general public is recognizing that this is an important topic,” Monda said. “It shows we need to take it more seriously.”
A 2013 study at the University of Pittsburgh indicated concussion injuries were relatively rare in youth football, said Anthony Kontos, assistant research director at the UPMC Sports Concussion Program.
Pitt’s researchers gathered data from more than 11,000 football practices and games — each counted as an “exposure” with the potential for injury — for 468 kids between ages 8 and 12 during one season of play in 2011. There were about 20 concussions during that time, for a rate of 1.76 per 1,000 exposures, Kontos said.
“There’s not a lot of big hitting going on. If you’ve ever watched a youth football game, they can be a little hesitant,” he said. “Kids are still learning tackling, and they’re not really generating the force necessary for concussions.”
About half the concussions the study found were the result of helmet-to-helmet collisions, which Kontos said were preventable as players learn better tackling techniques. They also occurred more among positions such as quarterbacks, running backs and linebackers, so rotating kids through positions might decrease their chance of exposure.
Tim O’Malley, executive director of the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League, said many steps are being taken at the high school level in all sports to reduce concussions.
Coaches have to pass tests on recognizing concussion symptoms, parents have to sign releases acknowledging that their child could be hurt, game officials are required to send players off the field if they appear concussed, and a medical professional has to clear the child to return to play, O’Malley said.
Beyond that, he said he wasn’t sure who would be responsible for any ban on contact sports, because they fall under many different authorities, and participation is voluntary.
“I don’t know who they’re addressing with this question,” O’Malley said.
Rich Pilardi and his wife started the Backyard Flag Football League in the North Hills about 14 years ago, and for most of that time, they saw participants’ parents signing them up to learn skills before the kids transferred to a tackle-football league.
“Now parents are saying, if Johnny wants to play flag football, we’re going to keep him in flag football,” said Pilardi, whose sons played tackle football until they suffered a fractured vertebra and a concussion, respectively. He blamed his younger son’s concussion for depression and concentration problems that kept one son out of school for months.
“You’re seeing parents saying, ‘You know what, Johnny doesn’t need to be taking a beating at 7 years old,’” he said.
The Upper St. Clair Athletic Association started a flag football league this summer to supplement its tackle football league, but officials there declined to comment.
After seeing Upper St. Clair’s flag football league, Mt. Lebanon planned to start one for its own young players in first and second grade — mainly because the kids were too young to handle more intensive practices and instruction, not out of fear of injuries, said Mt. Lebanon Football Association President Chip Dalesandro.
“We don’t have that many concussions, because we have the best equipment… and we educate the coaches, we teach them proper technique and we teach them how to run a practice,” he said. Fewer than 1 percent of the league’s 130 participants in grades 1 to 6 have experienced a concussion since the association began keeping records five years ago.
Participation in Mt. Lebanon’s youth football programs has been declining, but so has enrollment in local schools, Dalesandro said. The league still was attracting a sizeable percentage of eligible players — 40 to 60 percent of sixth-grade boys, for example.
But he also hoped the flag football program will attract parents who’d previously avoided the sport because they feared their kids getting hurt.
“We think it’s going to take off,” he said. “When parents see the instruction their kids are getting, they’ll be happy.”
Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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