01/25/14 by Rennie Detore
President Barrack Obama spoke out recently regarding contact sports and went as far as to say that if he had a son, he wouldn't let him play professional football. President Obama may be the most famous parent pushing kids away from football but definitely not the only one.
The influx of news and education regarding concussions and the National Football League has raised plenty of awareness within the confines of not only the men who play this brutal game but also has trickled down to the youth level.
Parents are pulling kids out of contact sports faster than Peyton Manning's wide receivers are pulling down touchdown passes for the Super Bowl bound Denver Broncos. Even with the information and education put forth by the NFL, including concussion testing and keeping players out of games if they can't pass concussion protocol, hasn't eased parents' concerns as attendance in contact sports is waning.
There's no long winded explanation or bevy of questions as to why this is happening, but rather one distinct declaration: parents don't want to have their kids injured or their future's compromised. This fear is brought to the forefront ironically by the NFL. They have spent countless hours and dollars protecting their players, and that information has become vital to preserve the longevity of these players well after they've hung up the cleats.
That research has changed the landscape of the NFL for the better, but parents have paid attention too, and the result is kids being overly protected, and youth football feeling the brunt of it.
Pop Warner reported over a two year period from 2010 to 2012 that attendance and participation has dropped to the lowest level in "decades," according to information obtained by ESPN. The report highlights a specific drop of about 10% in that span, which equates to more than 20,000 kids.
These figures have definitely piqued the attention and interest of the Pop Warner organization, which has implemented less tackling, perhaps the elimination of a three point stance, and continued education to kids on how to tackle properly. The three point stance is directed at lineman on offense and defense, all of whom incur head to head blows on virtually every play.
But is the fear of concussions really the only reason contact sports participation is on the decline?
Various voices paying close attention to the subject believe that head injuries easily usurp any other justification as to why attendance in falling. Some, however, argue that concussions aren't the only viable reason, either.
"I'm not sure if we can absolutely draw a parallel between attendance and concussion gear," said Khari Stallworth, CEO and co founder of MAX MY BODY. "We also have to examine the financial commitment that it takes to equip and athlete for contact sports."
That point holds modest amounts of merit in regard to parents putting together a realistic budget for kids interested in playing more than one sport. Even Pop Warner puts that exact reasoning into its dwindling numbers, citing that mom and dad might be interested in committing financially to just one sport.
But Stallworth also can't ignore the harsh truths about head injuries, either.
"I will admit that attendance is down for fear of physical injury as well," he states.
Given the laundry list of NFL casualties and the amount of mainstream publicity they receive, especially in recent years, it is hard not to be afraid, concerned and, to some extend, appalled at just how head injuries have altered the lives of professional players for the worse.
Dave Duerson played for 10 seasons in the NFL, the majority of that time with the Chicago Bears, and committed suicide in February of 2011. The Boston University School of Medicine analyzed his bran and determined Duerson suffered from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) from playing football and taking several shots to the head.
CTE is directly linked to concussions.
More recently in 2012, famed linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide and in early 2013 it was confirmed he suffered from a degenerative brain disease, too.
These examples are undoubtedly extreme, and the idea that playing youth football for a few years is going to leave this type of lasting effect on a child isn't realistic. Those stories, however, resonate tremendously with parents, who take protecting their kids as their sole objective, regardless of what level they're playing a particular contact sport. The classification of midget, youth or Pop Warner doesn't matter because the thought that head injuries are terrifying has already been put in their heads.
The Pop Warner attendance is direct proof of that.
One modicum of salvation in this tug of war between child safety and looking at contact sports in a sane matter is technology, helmets specifically.
The hope on any level is that technology will eventually catch up with speed, agility and brutality that encompasses football. The helmet is the key component, particularly when you're talking about children and brains that haven't fully developed.
Companies like Brain Sentry seem like they're headed in the right direction as far as research and implementation is concerned. They're developing a hybrid helmet of sorts for contact sports, like hockey and football, that include a mounted device on a helmet that measures impact and monitors when a player should be taken out of a game.
In theory, that technology tells a different story when it comes to contact sports, one that is underscored with tremendous upside and moving away from a past that is permeating with negativity. In reality, that technology won't come cheap, and one has to wonder if parents can afford that type of luxury, when simply saying "no" to contact sports is much easier.
One former NBA player suggests that even the NFL, with all its billions of dollars, still might not jump at the chance to pay more money for that type of technology.
Olden Polynice played 15 seasons in the NBA for a variety of teams, and says the name of the game for the NFL is choosing what's less expensive and also what is best for their revenue stream.
"Better helmets have been around, and they (NFL) choose not to use it," Polynice said. "Football is physical and has the means to protect and doesn't."
Beyond the equipment, the NFL sends mixed reviews about concussions and player concern, which parents undoubtedly pick up on, and thus the sincerity of the league in regard to safety is questioned.
"If you (NFL) is concerned, have training camp and then start season," Polynice said. "It's stupid; revenue (for the NFL) is there, and adding games makes no sense. The NFL isn't going anywhere even with suicides, murder, etc. Money is the bottom line."
Opinions on how the NFL handles safety is mixed, but the billion dollar business that is professional football, compared to the younger market, can handle a little negative publicity and controversy when it comes to concussions.
The NFL isn't going anywhere, any time soon.
The same can't be said for youth football, the parents and the kids.
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