Youth Tackle Football

By John Engh

Is tackle football safe? The debate continues. In the past four years, the National Alliance for Youth Sports has been constantly asked whether the organization is for or against the sport for young athletes. Here’s my take—and for the purposes of this article—youth football means anything prior to high school.

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Let’s Begin With The “Why Nots”
From concussions to the other injuries that occur from playing football, a full-contact sport for children is dangerous, especially where harder hits not only are part of the game, but often are taught to be a part of playing. This is arguably fine for adults and teenagers who have made the choice to play, and who have access to the highest-quality safety equipment. But throw in factors such as fast maturing kids with those who embrace contact, along with possibly dated equipment that is being passed down from team to team through the years, and you can’t ignore the high probability for injury.

Another factor I have always considered is how, in tackle football, at a young age, players’ positions tend to be assigned based on body type. Most associations have done their best over the years to make sure that the ages and weights of players are considered, but not much focus is given to positions. The bigger, slower kids seem to always end up playing on the line, and the faster, more skilled players end up as receivers and backs who actually touch the ball. In short, the uniqueness of the game at the adult level becomes a huge negative at the youth level.

And probably the greatest concern is the true education needed to be an informed football coach. Every year, multiple deaths are reported from heat-related illnesses that can be prevented. I recently read a story of a high school player who died from being sent back into a game after what seemed like a normal collision. Youth football coaches are almost always volunteers who typically have jobs that take up most of their time and energy, and planning for a football practice takes an incredible amount of time. Just coming up with enough plays to fill an entire game is a huge task. So can we also expect these well-meaning adults to be as focused on safety as the paid staff members at the upper levels of tackle football? It just doesn’t seem likely to me.

The Upside
These are only a couple of the negative issues I would ask a parent or administrator to consider when debating the value of tackle football for young children. But there are plenty of positives, too. First and foremost, football is a great game. It’s the number-one spectator sport in America, and it’s not even close. Millions of kids benefit from playing in football’s current form. They are out there learning skills, being part of a team, and getting exercise. And most are doing so because they love the game. Yes, there are risks, but every sport has them.

Also, playing tackle football provides experiences that just can’t be gained in other sports. Football is a great outlet for kids who need that type of physical contact that is hard to duplicate. You also have overweight kids who are encouraged to play, so if tackle football is taken away, what activity, if any, will these kids pursue? The obesity problem in this country is one that people would like to reduce, and many of these overweight kids aren’t encouraged to play sports like basketball and soccer.

The Bottom Line
But consider this: There are so many variables that exist from league to league nationwide. At the highest levels, football is played and practiced on pristine fields, using state-of-the-art equipment, with trained medical personnel on-site. The resources for high school football over the years seems to have increased dramatically and come closer to the college and professional ranks, but the facilities and availability of medical personnel and education for the coaches is still not close to the standards at the higher levels. And the drop-off to youth football is significant. Go from one community to the next, and you’ll see practices and games often run by volunteers without much, if any, oversight by professionals.

So yes, it’s a tough issue with no easy answers. But probably my greatest argument for saying “no” to tackle football before kids have at least reached puberty is they have a great alternative with flag football. While it doesn’t offer everything that tackle does, it’s a great game. My sense is that the national organizations that create the rules and run leagues in this country will continue to do their best to modify the game and create a hybrid that best transitions players to tackle football. And for that reason, I support the idea that children should not play tackle football until high school.

Here’s what a couple of Certified Youth Sports Administrators had to say on the issue:

Rich Dixon, Athletics Manager for Greenville County (S.C.) Parks, Recreation, & Tourism and Vice President of the SC Amateur Soccer Association: We will be approaching this issue after the fall season. Over the last five years, we have seen our league reduced from 60-plus teams to 37 this year. This includes dropping 10 teams from 2017. I feel the huge decrease is because of the continual release of information regarding concussions. The other trend we are seeing is more and more parents delaying their children playing football until they are older. Also, many kids are just trying out football for the first time in the 11- and 12-year-old age group. This approach may sound like good advice, but these players are missing the critical fundamentals obtained at younger ages that could help prevent injuries. In our department, we will evaluate this at the end of the fall season and decide what practices would be best for the league. Changes to tackle football are generally met with much resistance from the various organizations in the league. We hope the member organizations will be a vital part of this discussion.

Lacy Freeman, recreation programmer for the City of Mesa (Ariz.) Youth Sports: We saw a drastic drop in our kindergarten and first- and second-grade football programs this fall. The other sports for those levels are at typical numbers, if not higher. And the numbers for third- through fifth-grade flag football are high. We are hearing from parents that the risk of concussion in football has deterred them from enrolling the kids at such a young age, or at all. With this recent change, we will watch the registration numbers next fall and then make adjustments to include other programming for that age group or increase the capacity in other sports programs offered during the same season to accommodate the kids switching sports.

John Engh is executive director of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla. He can be reached via email at jengh@nays.org. To join more than 3,000 communities by starting a NAYS Member Organization, visit www.nays.org, email nays@nays.org or call (800) 729-2057.