Many NFL observers believed it was only a matter of time before parents curtailed their children’s participation in youth football after hearing so many stories about the potential side effects of concussions.
It appears that time is now.
According to ESPN’s “Outside the Lines," Pop Warner, the nation’s largest and most recognized youth football program, saw its participation levels drop 9.5 percent between 2010-12. Pop Warner lost 23,612 players, thought to be the greatest two-year decline since the organization began keeping statistics decades ago, according to the report. In addition, the report states Pop Warner football had a record-high 248,899 players participating in 2010, but that number fell to 225,287 by the 2012 season.
Pop Warner officials do not attribute the decline to the dangers of head injuries, but the organization's chief medical officer, Dr. Julian Bailes, believes that is the main reason.
"Unless we deal with these truths, we're not going to get past the dropping popularity of the sport and people dropping out of the sport," Bailes, a former Pittsburgh Steelers neurosurgeon whose 10-year-old son, Clint, plays Pop Warner outside Chicago told ESPN.com. "We need to get it right."
Meanwhile, USA Football, a national governing body partially funded by the NFL, said participation among players ages 6 to 14 fell from 3 million to 2.8 million in 2011, a 6.7 percent decline.
Pop Warner and USA Football attribute their decline to the economy and young athletes specializing in a single sport. Both are interesting arguments, but football has become a year-round sport in many states.
In fact, USA Football published an article on its website in 2012 to highlight the emergence of spring football. There are also plenty of youth football summer camps in most states, while colleges, like Florida State, offer youth camps.
The chilling stories about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease that many allege is caused by head injuries in football, is the likely culprit.
The NFL recently settled a class-lawsuit for $765 million that involved 4,500-plus plaintiffs over concussions. The plaintiffs argued the NFL had concealed a link between playing football and brain damage. However, as part of that settlement, the league did not admit to misconduct.
“If I'm a parent, anybody hearing that information, in the absence of other science, would be foolish not to be cautious,” said Tony Strickland, an associate clinical professor of neurology at UCLA's Geffen School of Medicine who sits on the Pop Warner's Medical Advisory Committee (via ESPN.com).
Youth football officials may not want to attribute threats of CTE to their declining participation, but it is hard to believe all of this medical information helps their cause.
Even if the NFL endorses “Heads Up” football, it is hard to ignore Lem Barney, a Hall of Fame cornerback who recently said if he could do it again, he would never play football. Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett was recently diagnosed with having signs of CTE, and said his daughters are scared of him, while the suicides of Hall of Famer Mike Webster and All-Pro Junior Seau were attributed to brain injuries.
If you are a parent, it is hard to ignore the current warning signs, especially after seeing a video like this:
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