Unnecessary Roughness

Over the years I’ve tackled many challenging youth sports questions, from Dateline NBC to Sports Illustrated and even Bill O’Reilly, but that’s nothing compared to what I find sitting in my e-mail inbox every morning.

I receive many notes from parks and recreation professionals, coaches and concerned moms and dads, and I’m happy to help as best I can. After my being around youth sports for more than 40 years, certain topics really grab my attention and, admittedly, push my blood pressure up a few notches. One of these is the issue of weight limits, particularly in youth football and the concern for safety on the field.

We’ve all seen those football games where one child has matured at supersonic speed compared to everyone else. He’s bigger, stronger and faster, and his coach is salivating just thinking about all the games the team is going to win with his star wreaking havoc on the field.

Of course, the coach typically puts him at running back on offense to capitalize on his skills as he plows over defenders who weigh significantly less; or he plays middle linebacker on defense, and terrorizes the opposition with bone-rattling hits that ruin the fun of playing for the kids on the receiving end.

Setting Boundaries

For the 9-and-under age group, weight restrictions are really a non-factor. After all, those kids are relatively the same size and strength, and because they move at much slower speed compared to the older kids, there’s little damage to be done.

For the kids 10 and older, it is a different story entirely, which brings me back to the e-mail I received recently. It was from a father of two boys, ages 10 and 8, involved in a tackle football program in South Florida that doesn’t use weight restrictions. Here’s an excerpt from that letter:

“At the last game on Sept. 22, my boys’ team was Florida State, and the opposing team was West Virginia. The other team had a player, and I am not lying, who weighed at the very least 180 pounds. The average weight is 80 pounds for 99 percent of our team. Well, just like I thought, this kid hit our quarterback, and the parents had to take him to the hospital. This is only one incident. and there are so many more. I am sending you a picture of the ambulance that was on the field taking away a 10-year-old boy. He couldn’t move. That was the breaking point for me. I had enough of seeing this.”

I’ve had it, too. These types of stories are occurring with increasing regularity. If your program doesn’t have some type of weight limits in place for youth football, you’re doing a terrible disservice to the kids who are strapping on the helmets. Besides putting them at unnecessary risk of injury, rest assured you’ll end up chasing some youngsters away from playing the sport for good. Toss in the traumatic factor of a child being drilled into the ground by a player twice his size in body weight, and it’s easy to see it’s a bad situation no matter how you look at it.

Balancing The Scale

Many recreation agencies have taken effective approaches when it comes to weight restrictions. For example, some regulate the weights for quarterbacks, running backs and receivers, since they handle the ball. This prevents a coach from constantly giving the ball to a child who is significantly larger than everyone else on the field. And while I’m at it, yes, I’m aware of the problem that many parents face whose kids are over the league’s weight limits. I realize they are caught in a Catch-22, where they are too big for their age group but yet too young to move up to play with the older kids.

But should we sacrifice the safety of all the kids? Of course not! That’s not what youth football is all about. I’m not suggesting that this bigger child should be forced out of the league; he’s entitled to the right to play too, just as long as the coach doesn’t utilize him in positions such as running back; that isn’t fair to the remainder of the smaller kids in the program.

The gentleman who sent me the e-mail is committed to convincing the board that oversees his kids’ program that changes need to be made to better protect the youngsters. I applaud his efforts to make a difference for children. I am interested to see how this situation plays out and will be monitoring it closely, so please stay tuned and I’ll let you know what happens.

In the meantime, take a closer look at how your youth football programs are structured when it comes to weight, and do the right thing for the kids because they need you to step up.

And if your program has found a great approach for dealing with weight issues, send me an e-mail. Besides addressing the tough issues, I enjoy hearing all the success stories out there, too.

Fred Engh is founder and CEO of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla., which has been advocating positive and safe sports for children since 1981. He is also the author of “Why Johnny Hates Sports,” which is available on Amazon.com. He can be reached via e-mail at fengh@nays.org