Friday Night Lights, college football Saturdays and the Red Zone Channel all day Sunday — for millions of red-blooded Americans, and certainly hundreds of thousands here in the state of Texas, our entire weekends are constructed around that agenda and our insatiable hunger for the sport of football. We spend our weekends cheering on our kids, our alma mater, our Houston Texans, all while checking in periodically on our wagers or fantasy teams on our smartphones.
We can debate whether our societal love for football in the autumn months is more nourishment or addiction (probably a little of both), but its presence is undeniable, and that’s what makes the dark cloud of head trauma in football players so conflicting. How can something we love so much be so very bad, sometimes lethal, for its participants?
For the past four or five years, the concussion issue in American football has been a metaphorical drumbeat that’s grown louder and louder, as an older generation of former football players has dealt with the fallout from their sport’s violent nature — depression, memory loss, ALS, to name a few ways the punishment manifests itself in some of the sport’s former gladiators.
For many of these former players, the battleground has shifted from the playing field to the courtroom, as thousands of them have been engaged in a billion-dollar legal tug-of-war with the NFL over compensation for their injuries. More recently, the litigation has trickled down to the collegiate and youth levels of football as well, most famously in the form of a class action lawsuit filed last month against Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football league, in the state of California by the parents of two children whose deaths have been linked to brain trauma suffered while they were playing football.
Whether those parents will be successful in their legal efforts remains to be seen; however, the litigation itself is symbolic evidence that the accountability for football’s concussion problem is no longer just an NFL issue, but a football issue that has leadership within the youth game taking drastic measures to help our country’s most popular sport survive long-term.
What makes the noble efforts of those overseeing youth football, both nationally as well as locally here in Houston, so difficult is the nebulous nature of head trauma’s cause and effect. There’s still so much we don’t know. The genesis, nature and healing of brain injuries are not as formulaic as with, say, an ACL or torn muscle. The irony is that the effect of brain injuries, at its worst, is far more devastating than from other bodily harm.
Many parents aren’t waiting around to find out what the long-term effects of tackle football are on their children’s brains. Instead, they’re turning to alternative ways to help satiate their kids’ love for football, namely flag football. I9 Sports is the nation’s largest youth sports league franchise business in the United States, offering flag football (among many other sports) for kids up to the age of 14 in a number of states, including Texas.
“We’ve experienced a 40 percent jump in flag football participation nationwide over the last five years,” said Brian Sanders, I9 Sports’ president and CEO. “Even in a state like Texas where football is ‘king,’ our flag football participation increased 8 percent last year alone.” Sanders goes on to cite a new study by USA Football that shows participation in flag football nationwide grew 8.7 percent among children ages six to 14, and 10.5 percent among children ages 15 to 18 in 2016.
Along those lines, one community in South Carolina has taken the most extreme safety measure possible in offering youth football. Joey Blethen, recreation director of the Tega Cay, South Carolina, Parks & Recreation Department, made the decision this year to eliminate tackle football as an option in that town and is now offering flag football only. For Blethen, who is a diehard fan of college and NFL football, the decision did not come easily.
“I’m a huge football fan,” said Blethen, whose office wall contains a poster of Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. “But I saw a feature on television about a dozen youth football players who died in 2015, and I asked myself if I could live with myself if one of those football players were in my league. So I made the decision to offer flag football only in our community.”
Over the past decade or so, one of the leading voices in concussion awareness has been Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and WWE wrestler who suffered concussions himself and, as a result, founded the Concussion Legacy Foundation to spearhead research in the area of brain trauma. Nowinski approves wholeheartedly of decisions like Blethen’s that reduce tackle-football-style hitting in kids.
“I think it’s the greatest thing to ever happen to football,” Nowinski said, “We now have the brains of nearly 200 [deceased] men who have played football, and the risk of developing CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy — basically, brain damage] long-term appears to be correlated with how long a person played football, similar to the correlation between smoking and lung cancer or sunbathing and skin cancer.
“If you can shorten someone’s tackle football career without hurting their actual football development, then that’s the right move,” continued Nowinski, who believes that kids should wait until high school to begin tackling.
Blethen, who had seen a dip in tackle football participation even before his decision to eliminate it in Tega Cay, has predictably seen a massive increase in flag football participation, including a jump from 52 to 132 kids in the nine-through-11 age group alone. He’s gotten minimal pushback, although a few in the community were skeptical, if not angry, over his decision.
“I had one person tell me that I should resign from my position, but it hasn’t been bad,” Blethen said, laughing. “Now, I can only imagine if I decided to do this in Texas, where football is ‘king.’”
If football is indeed “king” in Texas, then the metaphorical castle probably resides right here in Houston’s backyard, in Katy, home of the youth football juggernaut that is Katy Youth Football. With a couple of thousand kids and a meticulously organized system that groups teams by elementary school and keeps them together through those formative years, KYF is the gold standard for youth football in the state of Texas.
In addition to taking the development of its kids, as players and people, very seriously, the league has also embraced every necessary measure to ensure participants are playing tackle football in the safest way possible. To that end, KYF was an early adopter of USA Football’s “Heads Up” program, an NFL-backed initiative whose goal is to teach kids how to execute contact in a fashion that minimizes the involvement of the head. As a result, in an age when youth tackle football has seen an overall decline in numbers, KYF actually saw an increase this past year.
“Our numbers went up 25 percent this past year,” said Robert
Valdez Cortez, vice president of finance for KYF. “Much of that is because we’ve made parents aware of how seriously we take safety. Our coaches go through hours of certification with USA Football and training with Dr. Kenneth Podell (a neuropsychologist with the Houston Methodist Neurological Institute) on concussion recognition. We document every single injury, and turn them in to our board.”
In addition to teaching the coaches, all of whom are volunteers, on how to train players to use safer techniques, the league has adopted strict time constraints on contact in practice (90 minutes of full contact a week) and eliminated dangerous drills that are designed solely around violent contact, like “Bull In The Ring” or the “Oklahoma Drill.”
As an attorney and a former professional football player, in addition to his role as executive director of health and safety for KYF, Dave Perez is fully aware of the environment in which tackle football operates in 2016, and raises a well-reasoned defense of the tackle version of the sport.
“First, our kids are playing while wearing helmets,” Perez said. “Kids in flag football are playing just as hard as our kids, but are exposed to head-to-head hits with no helmets. Additionally, the youth version of tackle football isn’t nearly as violent as pro football, where guys are playing literally to feed their families. People tend to group ‘tackle football’ in one big category, but the hitting in pro football is about survival. That’s not the case in youth football, where our kids are just trying to bring their opponent to the ground.”
Beyond that, Perez, whose two sons have come through the KYF program, is an advocate for the life skills kids learn playing football. “In my work, I deal with a lot of investment banks and big companies,” Perez said. “Far more than any other sport, football is the feeder system for the leaders of those types of institutions. The sport is a great training ground for kids to learn teamwork and develop self-confidence.”
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Going forward, that’s the trade-off parents who grew up loving football, who still love football, must weigh — are the relationships formed, the life skills and toughness developed, worth their child’s physical risk?
Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in research already, and the willingness of the sport’s current adult participants to literally contribute their brains to the cause — Nowinski has indicated that 375 players have volunteered to donate their deceased brains to concussion research — none of us know the full physiological ramifications of playing tackle football.
Perhaps our “take the good, and pray the unknown isn’t so bad” outlook on football was summed up best last week by former Houston Texans running back Arian Foster, whose retirement announcement was punctuated with this bit of dark humor about memory loss — “This is a beautifully violent game and the same reason I loved it is why I have to walk away. That bittersweet taste will forever linger with me, but on my next journey, I get to carry those memories with me. Hopefully. lol.”