You don’t have to look far to find people proclaiming the end of football right now. Vocal critics like Malcolm Gladwell and respected medical experts such as Bennett Omalu are quick to say they believe the NFL should be disbanded in light of the risks for repeated head trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. But, you’d be hard pressed to find any strong evidence that professional football is struggling for popularity or revenue.
Instead, you have to look at younger athletes to see the growing effect that brain injuries are having on the sport. While NFL stadiums are as packed as ever, some youth football groups say they are struggling to fill teams with players.
Oklahoma’s largest youth tackle football organization, the Indian Nation Football Conference, recently told The Tulsa World that the number of young athletes signing up has been steadily falling over the past few years. Over the past five years, INFC commissioner Chad Lott estimates they’ve lost around 1,000 players.
Lott is hesitant to blame the decrease on concussions. Instead, he suggests that parents aren’t willing to devote the amount of time necessary for the sport. As he says, “I just think it’s easier for parents to blame concussions than to say, ‘I don’t want my Saturdays to be tied up with football. I don’t want to go to practice three nights a week.’”
While that’s entirely possible, there’s not much evidence to support his suggestion. If that was the case, participation levels for all sports would be on the decline. However, many other youth sports organizations for soccer, basketball, and baseball report having more young athletes joining up than ever.
In the meantime, youth football organizations across the country see they are seeing similar issues as the INFC because parents are concerned about their children’s safety.
In Chicago, some leagues such as the one run by the Park District of Highland Park have been forced to shut down due to lack of players. Just a few years ago the youth league had as many as 150 participants in a season. This year, only 11 signed up forcing the league to close. Other groups have shrunk to as few as four teams per league.
The head of Chicago’s Canaryville Lions program, Adam Campbell, also implies there are other forces than concussions contributing to the shrinking numbers of kids in their league. Still, he admits concussions are a major problem.
“It certainly doesn’t help that concussion is on a lot of moms’ minds,” Campbell told The Chicago Tribune. “And I’m hearing it from dads who are saying, ‘I played but I don’t want my kids to play.'”
Early estimates from organizations like these across the country show the phenomenon is widespread across the country, with youth leagues being forced to downsize or consolidate with neighboring groups to stay active.
It is entirely understandable that parents may be wary of football. It has finally been widely recognized that it is hard to avoid concussions when athletes are regularly crashing into each other as hard as possible. As such, parents worry that playing the sport could jeopardize their child’s long-term health or even their cognitive abilities.
On the other hand, youth coaches argue they aren’t getting the recognition they deserve for taking steps to protect young athletes. They also say people are forgetting the positive values developed through the sport.
“There’s a risk in contact sports, but there are benefits too,” Novatney, president of the Hinsdale Falcons told the Tribune. “There’s teamwork. There’s discipline. There are life lessons. There’s maturity. There’s development. There are things you learn. There are mentors you remember. That’s why a lot of us are in this.”
Of course, many parents and coaches are still standing behind football based on their own experiences, memories, and desire for their child to be athletically active.
Russell Greene, coach for an INFC team says he can’t imagine pulling his children from football. “I do it because these kids love it and because I love the game,” he explained.
This year is particularly special for Greene, who was a Broken Arrow High School wide receiver in the 90’s. It will be the first time he gets to coach his son.
Whether parents decide to let their children play football is entirely a personal decision, but it should be made with an understanding of the risks and dangers associated with football and concussions. It is also important to know that some sports, like soccer, also carry a substantial risk of head injuries.
Still, the slump seen by youth football organizations across the country spells trouble for football’s long-term health. Many pros say they got started “throwing the pigskin around” as young as four or five. What happens if the future greats of American football decide to protect their brain by picking up a basketball, instead?