This weekend and next, pint-sized football players who have risen to the top of their youth leagues are striding heroically onto gridirons across the nation, playing out their own Super Bowl dreams. The scene may look pretty innocent. But growing concern about concussion in youth sports is casting a long shadow across the sidelines.
This week, the nation’s oldest and largest youth football league, Pop Warner, issued some new rules governing head and neck injuries. Added to rules that just went into effect in late September, Pop Warner’s new policies have put the dads, uncles, teachers and other volunteers that coach the league’s 7,000 tackle football teams squarely on notice: Where concussion is concerned, “if in doubt, sit them out.”
position statement issued by the American Academy of Neurologists two weeks ago.
This week, the league aimed a rule change at gung-ho parents who moonlight as head coaches of their own child’s team: If you’re the coach, and it’s your kid who’s suspected of having sustained a concussion, you won’t have the option of ordering him back into the game, the league declared.
In such instances, an assistant coach must judge whether your kid should be sidelined.
“Unfortunately in this day and age, there’s a growing number of overzealous parents who'll say, ‘Put him back in the game!’” said Jon Butler, executive director of Pop Warner, in an interview. The new rules “alleviate the pressure on the coach” to cave in to such parents, he added. And if the coach himself is such a parent, a fellow dad can step in and protect the child.
Pop Warner, which has about 280,000 tackle football players ranging in age from 5 to 16 on its rosters, also announced the establishment of its own Medical Advisory Board, made up of neuromedicine and sports safety experts. Butler says that as new research on brain trauma emerges, the new panel of medical advisers will propose and weigh policy changes to protect kids.
The panel is to be led by Dr. Julian Bailes, chairman of West Virginia University Medical School’s department of neurosurgery. Dr. Bailes also serves the NFL Players’ Assn.’s “Second Opinion Network ”— a new organization of physicians independent of professional team doctors who will weigh in on a player’s readiness to return to the field.
When it comes to concussion awareness, “we know the previous state of affairs” in youth leagues, said Dr. Bailes in an interview. “And we’re trying to improve upon it.… We want to take it seriously and want to make it better.”
Just how serious have youth leagues been about acknowledging concussion in their players? Jon Butler says that a recent look through records of the Pop Warner league’s 2008 and 2009 seasons revealed that a total of 12 concussions were reported in the course of the two seasons.