As part of the research for my book That’s Gotta Hurt: The Injuries That Changed Sports Forever, I reached out to a number of brain experts, including Dr. Robert Stern, Dr. Ann McKee and Dr. Robert Cantu. All of them shared a concern for the repetitive blows to the brain from football for young kids whose brains were still developing. Their perspectives helped to persuade me that kids and their parents should at least consider non-contact football until age 14. For this week’s newspaper column, I discuss one option for kids who still want to play – flag football.
Flag football is booming
One of the bright spots for football has gone unnoticed amid all the talk of declining participation numbers and parents’ concerns about brain injuries. Flag football is booming.
Between 2014 and 2015, participation in flag football increased 8.7 percent among kids between age 6 and 14. That increase exceeded any other sport, making flag football the fastest growing youth sport. Compare it to tackle football, which only saw an increase of 1.9 percent among kids 6 to 14.
Tackle football participation has declined greatly in recent years
If you step back and look at tackle football statistics between 2010 and 2015, though, youth tackle football participation dropped 27.7 percent – from 3 million kids to 2.169 million.
Flag football and passing leagues offer an alternative to tackle football
Flag football leagues are thriving as an alternative for parents worried about the injury risks. In Chicago, the number of kids playing in flag football leagues has jumped 45%. And in the Tampa, Florida area, more than 7000 kids have played at 10 sites in the Under the Lights league. The league even has a sponsor – Under Armour.
Tampa’s league, like many around the country, is based on the passing leagues common for high school athletes in the offseason. Teams feature seven players on the field, all at skill positions, running sophisticated plays like jet sweeps and bubble screens, without tackling.
In Virginia Beach, passing leagues offer an alternative to tackle football for kids between the ages of 10 and 18. Every play is a passing play. Every offensive player is an eligible receiver being guarded by defensive backs and linebackers. While it’s basically touch football, it does serve to teach football skills. Its coaches say excitement among parents and young athletes is high.
The fear of long-term brain damage from football
The fear of repetitive blows to the brain from collisions in tackle football fuels much of the switch to noncontact football. With persistent reports of former players developing long-term brain decline – like the eight members of the famed 1972 Miami Dolphins team dealing with cognitive issues now – more parents might turn away from tackle football. Even the running back on that Dolphins team, Larry Csonka, argues that children shouldn’t be exposed to the risk.
Non-contact football to limit blows to the head in growing children
While the NFL, NCAA and many state high school athletic federations have taken steps to limit contact in practices, youth football hasn’t been as aggressive. Many youth leagues don’t limit the number of contact practices. Kids can play in multiple leagues throughout the year and even play in camps that feature full contact. Flag and passing leagues would represent a way to significantly decrease the number of brain impacts a young athlete withstands.
Would injuries increase by limiting tackle in football at the youth level?
Proponents of tackle football might argue that kids need to learn proper tackling techniques at a young age. Otherwise they might tackle with poor technique later and increase the risk of injury when colliding with bigger, faster and stronger players.
Let parents choose flag or tackle football
I’m not arguing that parents should choose flag football over the tackle version. I just want them to be able to choose, no matter where they live. If parents are concerned about the risk of concussions and long-term brain injuries in football, their kids can play flag football early. Then they can switch to tackle for high school, when their brains have more fully matured.
Playing sports, including football, offers kids the chance to have fun, get exercise and even develop leadership and teamwork. Both flag and tackle football can offer those benefits. Parents deserve to have either option available for their kids.
Learn more from some of the leading brain experts about concussions, CTE and steps football can take to protect the health of the athletes in That’s Gotta Hurt: The Injuries That Changed Sports Forever. Order your copy now from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, Apple iBookstore, Target, IndieBound or Powell’s Books.
Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the June 8, 2017 issue of The Post and Courier.
Future of football: Flag vs. tackle the concussion battleground for children. By Matt Baker. Tampa Bay Times. June 2, 2017.
Here’s how to let kids play football while preventing brain injury, ‘wussification’. By Mike Reader. Charlotte Observer. May 20, 2017.
Football’s toll: At least eight members of 1972 Dolphins affected by cognitive impairment. By Adam H. Beasley, Armando Salguero and Linda Robertson. The Miami Herald. May 13, 2017.
Football with no running plays and no tackling: Virginia Beach starts new “Passing League” for kids. By Eric Hodies. The Virginia-Pilot. April 20, 2017.
Youth flag football participation rises amid concussion concerns. By Vikki Ortiz Healy. Chicago Tribune. March 27, 2016.
The Hottest Sport In America Is Flag Football. By Juliet Spies-Gans. Huff Post. March 16, 2016.
Youth Football Participation Is Plummeting. By Jack Moore. Vocativ. March 16, 2016.