Cracks in the Foundation: Pop Warner Football Participation Drops Dramatically

With the discovery of the brain disease CTE (chronic traumatic encepholopathy) in football players, many of whom saw their lives spiral out of control then ending in suicide or violently, we might have seen the beginning of end of football in America, at least as we know it.

As the CTE research continues to develop, there was the publication of the book League of Denial, which chronicled the NFL's devil-may-care attitude towards concussions until their hand was forced. Future Hall of Famer Kurt Warner said that he would prefer that his sons not play football.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a highly publicized article in the New Yorker showing, among other things, an 18 year-old with the beginnings of brain disease and hypothesizing that it is not necessarily the big hits, but the smaller, repeated hits -- the kind offensive linemen undergo dozens of times a game -- that may be the cause of CTE.

And no doubt stories like the one about the Ivy League (Penn) football player who hanged himself his junior year and already had signs of CTE resonated as well. Now, instead of celebrating "big hits" on the football field, the announcers, and the fans, wince when there is a helmet-to-helmet hit and the player stumbles back towards the sideline in a daze.

There is a cultural sea-change happening with football. Perhaps this can be seen most starkly by the dramatic drop in participation rates in Pop Warner football. As ESPN reports:

The nation's largest youth football program, Pop Warner, saw participation drop 9.5 percent between 2010-12, a sign that the concussion crisis that began in the NFL is having a dramatic impact at the lowest rungs of the sport.

According to data provided to "Outside the Lines," Pop Warner lost 23,612 players, thought to be the largest two-year decline since the organization began keeping statistics decades ago. Consistent annual growth led to a record 248,899 players participating in Pop Warner in 2010; that figure fell to 225,287 by the 2012 season.

Apparently, parents have stood up and taken notice. (Let me hazard a guess: lacrosse participation is sky-rocketing). No one wants to place their child in harm's way. Some think all of the above is an overreaction to what we really know about concussions. Others take a different view:

Dr. Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon and concussion expert at Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, has advocated for banning tackle football for children younger than 14 because "the young brain is much more susceptible to the shock associated with concussion."

There is no right or wrong or definitive answer to this fraught question: should I let my kids play tackle football? Some kids emerge unscathed, other don't -- it's impossible to see into your kid's future. But it appears that some parents are beginning to vote with their feet. In the NFL offices in midtown Manhattan, there should be a distinct sense of worry.

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