New polling shows a majority of Americans think youth of a certain age should not play contact football for fear of long-term brain injuries, but some area coaches and recreation league officials contend that the game is more popular and safer than ever.
A survey by St. Leo University, conducted among 1,000 American adults in September, showed nearly two-thirds (61.5 percent) say they likely would encourage their child to wait until high school to play football. Fifty-six percent say they support elimination of the contact sport for children prior to entering middle school.
Local residents, responding to our inquiry on Facebook, were concerned about the safety of their children and had definite opinions on this subject.
“I think full-pad tackle football should be seventh grade and up. Before that, (it) should be about learning fundamentals, including tackling, but without 11 on 11 full pads,” said Greg Jones.
“There are ways to do this including tackling dummies and flag football.”
Dana Ryals added, “My son is playing peewee football. This is his first year. He loves it. I was against it because I'm overprotective of him. But, I see how much he loves the game.”
Ryals said a doctor checks out her son’s health each month, but “I'm still not thrilled about the roughness of the game. But, I'm raising a boy … not a princess.
“I pray hard that all the kids stay safe and healthy throughout each game,” she added. “Who knows? Football could lead to scholarships and even give kids self-confidence. But, as a mom I worry about injuries each practice and each game.
But, I guess every sport can be dangerous.”
The hard knocks and multiple concussions that football players often suffer during games and practice are cause for concern. Recent research showed that chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) was found in the brains of more than 100 former NFL players, some of whom committed suicide. The findings were published in July in The Journal of the American Medical Association.
Dr. Christopher Wolfe, assistant professor of psychology at St. Leo University in Florida, said his classes discuss sports and head injuries. “I have seen some recent reports suggesting any head injury is trauma and causes injury in the brain,” Wolfe said. “It's been a wonder to me that since these findings (regarding CTE and professional football players) have come out, that more discussion on this topic hasn't become a focus.”
But, according to officials from the Liberty and Bryan County recreation departments, coaches and administrators have had those discussions and are well-equipped to deal with the issues.
Increased awareness of concussions, proper training to avoid them, and use of better equipment to protect bodies are their primary focus.
Although football involves more contact than soccer and basketball, Jimmy Martin, director of the Liberty County Recreation Department, believes football is just as safe because of the equipment worn, which can prevent serious injury. He said football equipment, particularly the helmet, has gotten better designed and more sturdy over the years.
Lonnie Adamson, athletic supervisor for South Bryan County Recreation Department, said their program has gotten much stronger in recent years. “We overhauled the way things were being done.”
He said coaches teach proper tackling techniques and conduct safety drills. As a result, at least at the youth level, there is “not high impact contact on a regular basis.”
Martin added that in Liberty County, “Most, if not all of our coaches are certified by the National Alliance of Youth Sports that gives good training on how to prevent injuries. We give everyone (players, parents) information on how to prevent concussions.”
Phil Jablonski is a former youth football coach for the South Bryan County Recreation Department. Now retired, he was active in youth sports since the early 1980s and guided one of the South Bryan teams (U12) to a state championship in 2013. He was instrumental in helping bring awareness to the department of the need for better equipment and training.
“There was a need to have safe equipment,” he said, and to “tackle properly and (keep players) hydrated.”
Jablonski raised money to purchase football equipment for the league by creating a non-profit group, “Full Potential Football,” after noticing players were coming to practice with equipment that he said was not suitable.
Although Jablonski says the fundraising effort is no longer active, “It really changed the way we did things in South Bryan.”
“Statistically, it’s a very safe sport,” Jablonski said. “When you take the training, it becomes safer.”
Having a concussion protocol, where “someone recognizes when a child gets hit and pulls them aside to sit out or to see a doctor,” is crucial, he added.
Ensuring that players compete only against others the same age prevents larger-sized and more mature players from dominating smaller, younger children, thus reducing the possibility of injuries.
In Liberty County, with the exception of the combined 11- and 12-year-old league, there are single age divisions for ages 8, 9, and 10. This is true for Bryan County, as well.
Mandy Toole, athletic director for North Bryan County Recreation Department, said it offers non-contact flag football for ages 4, 5, and 6, which the department considers too young for contact. The only tackle program is for 9- and 10-year-olds.
Like the other recreation league officials, Toole said popularity in youth football continues to rise, especially for tackle, and she is not aware of any complaints or concerns voiced by parents regarding the threat of serious injuries.
Player numbers are up in South Bryan County, says Adamson. “We have to turn away participants.” Currently, about 230 children, ages 8 to 12, are participating in tackle football, Adamson added.
Approximately 300 participate in tackle football in Liberty County, Martin said. There are an additional 50 7-year-olds who play flag football. At one time someone as young as 8 would not be able to play tackle football, Martin said, but that was changed when the demand for contact increased.
We asked Richmond Hill High School head football coach Matthew LeZotte whether youth ball with an emphasis on avoiding hard tackles properly prepares players for advanced competition.
“At Richmond Hill, we have to teach most of the players that walk through our door how to play our brand of football,” LeZotte said. “A lot of players get experience playing recreation league and middle school, but the game is so much different at the high school level when these kids reach us. We have to teach them how to block and tackle all over again.”
LeZotte continued, “I do think that preparation for high school football starts at the recreation level and moves through the middle school. It is important for all coaches within a system to understand they need to be teaching the same things as the coaches at the high school. At this level of competition, there are very few top ranked teams in the state that do not have this in place.”
The coach reiterated what many of the recreation department officials stressed, that safety is their number one concern.
“Our coaches take a yearly concussion test to stay up to date on trends within the sport,” LeZotte said. “The way we teach blocking and tackling has evolved, with a major emphasis on safety of players.
“Another thing we emphasize, due to the size of our program, is competing against “like” level players,” he added. “Some programs have ninth-graders competing against 12thgraders out of necessity. We try to avoid any mismatches that could have a negative effect on players’ experience, but more importantly, their health.”
As part of the St. Leo survey, poll respondents with more education highly supported eliminating contact football before high school with 65.3 percent of national respondents with post-college education (master’s degrees, etc.) saying they support elimination while 50.8 percent with a college degree and 43 percent with a high school education saying they support abolishing football prior to high school.
Along racial lines, 55.2 percent of white respondents say they support elimination of contact football until players enter high school, while 47.2 percent of African-American respondents and 49.1 percent of Hispanic respondents agree.