By AARON ONDREY
Football-related concussions are big news in the big leagues, but the impact is being felt in youth leagues as well.
While professional football is ranked as the most-popular sport in America, the Pop Warner leagues, the largest organization for youth football, had a 9.5 percent drop in participation from 2010-2012, according to an ESPN report in November.
That’s 23,000 fewer players. Also, USA Football, which is partially funded by the NFL, said since 2011 participation of children ages 6-14 in football has decreased by 6.7 percent.
ESPN attributed the drop, in part, to concussions.
At least one Mahoning Valley coach says the way to solve that problem comes down to tackling and technique.
Dave Schmidt has coached fifth- and sixth-grade football at South Range in North Lima for 36 years. He is critical of the way players tackle in the NFL.
“Don’t watch the NFL,” he tells his players. “What you see in the NFL is hitting — and hitting and tackling are two different words.”
Children who played youth football — ages 9-12 — made up for 20.1 percent of all emergency-room visits between 1997-2012, according to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, which is operated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Schmidt said the rate of concussions correlates to the age when the children start playing football.
“It makes sense that the numbers [of concussions] get higher as they get older, aside from getting bigger and stronger,” Schmidt said. “From kindergarten to sixth grade, we teach football the right way. We as parents, including myself, are always worried about our child’s safety, but if you do it the right way, it’s a very minimal chance that [concussions] happen.”
Nevertheless, more parents are waiting until their children are 12 or 13 before letting them play in youth football.
“A lot of parents send their kids to flag football because they think it’s less physical, but without the pads, I’m more scared of flag than tackle. No pads, no helmets, to me, that’s insane,” said John Crouse of North Lima.
He has five children — four sons and a daughter — who he allows to play sports.
Crouse doesn’t worry about head injuries.
“A concussion can happen anywhere,” he said. “No matter if it’s on the field, on the playground at recess, or in the bathroom and they slip in the tub. But I don’t see it as a big fear.”
Annie McCullough’s older son is a high-school freshman in Lisbon. He plays football, basketball and runs track. Although he’s had a couple of concussions, she won’t tell him he can’t play anymore.
“Our team has actually had a lot of concussions over the past few years, but my oldest son is so passionate about it, I don’t have the heart to make him stop,” she said. “I’ve always been a lot more concerned with broken bones or muscles or tendons. I don’t really think about head injuries.”
Crouse said he hasn’t seen a drop in participation at South Range High School and there are plenty of players on the fifth- and sixth-grade teams. He said, however, there is a bit of a struggle to field a team for the Bantam league (kindergarten through third grade) that he coaches.
Dan Lyons, the fifth- and sixth-grade football coach at St. Charles School in Boardman, said the best way to prevent concussions at the youth level is to teach proper tackling technique and form.
“We teach our kids to put their facemask into the ball. That way the kids’ heads don’t go down, and you keep your shoulders square on the tackle,” Lyons said. “On day one of practice I ask the kids, ‘What do you use your head for?’ The answer: to think.”
TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaborative effort among the Youngstown State University journalism program, The University of Akron, Cuyahoga Community College and professional media outlets including, WYSU-FM Radio and The Vindicator, and The Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio of Akron.