Recently, the majority of news stories coming from the NFL have been negative. With the draft now complete and teams starting to move into their OTAs, the spotlight has returned to the safety issues related to brain injuries and concussions. On 5/23, USA Today ran a feature article in their Sports section discussing the topic of safety and asking parents their views as it related to youth football.
I am proud to live in a state (Ohio) and city (Columbus) where football is king. I believe it is God’s second greatest gift to mankind… His Son obviously being #1. Youth football in my community is serious business. Children begin playing flag football at age 5, and after 2 years of basic instruction, they graduate to full-contact football at the 3rd grade level. Is that too early? Does a 7 year old possess the mental wherewithal to grasp the fundamentals of the game and know how to keep himself or herself safe in the process? It is a question that could rage on with viable points being made by both sides. A better question might be: Are the coaches capable of teaching the proper fundamentals to the players or are they merely reliving their own glory days as a high school or college player through their sons?
From my personal perspective, my wife and I allowed our oldest son to begin playing full contact football in 3rd grade. He played two years of flag and then followed his friends and teammates into the realm of tackle football. At that age, there were more knock downs and wrap-ups than full on tackles. I helped out with the kids and did my best to promote the “keep your head up” philosophy of tackling. Sounding like a broken record telling the boys, “You can’t tackle what you can’t see.” I’m just glad there were no videos available for the kids to see of my playing days.
There is no denying the fact that the object of football is to be more physical than your opponent. Teams win because of their ability to move the opponent out of the way to score, and in turn, to stop them from doing the same. The majority of my football experience came in the “trenches” of the offensive/defensive line. The hardest piece of equipment handed out to each player was and still is the helmet. It didn’t take long for me to realize that if my helmet was the first thing to contact my opponent, there was a higher probability of me winning the physical battle. Thankfully, I was never fast enough or big enough to cause that Force = Mass x Acceleration equation to swing out of balance and cause serious injury to myself or my opponents. My wife and children may argue that I suffer from irreversible brain trauma, but that’s a different discussion for a different day.
Youth football was not available in my hometown when I was in elementary school. We had backyard games with equipment purchased from K-Mart or Woolworth’s. I’m positive that gear was held to the highest standards for safety…
My first introduction to organized, tackle football was in the 7th grade at the age of 12. Since there was no youth football program available, most of my teammates were at the same level of understanding the fundamentals when we started. I was aided by a father that had played football and was willing to support me in my desire to become a better player. Others benefitted similarly, and as a team, we managed to be competitive against neighboring communities that had youth football programs.
Based on my experiences both as a player and a coach, I believe that more damage can be done mentally and physically to youth players as a result of coaches that are more focused on winning than teaching. I played on championship teams in high school and was fortunate enough to experience being a part of an undefeated team as a freshman. My son has played on teams that had success in the regular season of youth football, but unfortunately, he never raised the championship trophy at the end of the season. I believe his experiences, for the most part, have been positive, and that is a direct result of coaches that cared to take the time, work on the basics of the game, and keep youth football in perspective. It is a child’s game, and it should be played with youthful exuberance.
It is a personal choice for parents when deciding if they will allow their children to play football. Full contact sports involve calculated risks that could potentially cause injury, and parents need to consider those risks before signing the permission slip for their son or daughter takes the field.
One question I would like to ask those parents on the side of the fence favoring safety in the form of no participation in contact sports: Is there a greater risk that your child will suffer a head injury playing football or riding a bicycle?
Food for thought.