Youth football poll shows parents are worried

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I was a head coach in pee-wee football for a couple of years in the early 1970s before I moved to Florida.

The teams were made up of boys from the fourth through sixth grades in elementary school. Parents were happy to sign them up for the wholesome sport of football.

Most of the kids seemed happy, too. I'll bet many of them dreamed of Friday nights when they would wear the maroon and white of the small-town Lebanon High Warriors.

It was expected coaches would teach youngsters the basics in this elementary program. And man, was it basic.

The kids had ill-fitting helmets and shoulder pads that seemed to shift with every move. I don't remember anyone getting seriously hurt in either a game or practice, but that was probably just blind luck.

The memory of those days came roaring back the other day when the results of an online Saint Leo University poll about youth football hit my in-box.

It was striking.

Approximately 62 percent of respondents both nationally and in Florida said they believe a child should wait until high school to play football. A majority – about 53 percent statewide and nationally – said they would tell their child to steer clear of contact football altogether.

It's easy to see why attitudes are changing. All the stories about brain damage that researchers say was wrought by repeated football-related trauma is enough to scare anyone.

Mental impairment is not the only danger. I've interviewed dozens of former football players over the years who now battle severe chronic, crippling pain from their injuries. Common sense tells us the bodies of young kids are still developing in elementary and middle school, and that repeated collisions from football can interfere with that process.

Remember the coaching days I referenced at the start of this piece? Things seem much different now in the youth leagues. The equipment is significantly better and the Tampa Bay Youth Football League, which has been around since 1968, has strict practice guidelines, plus age and weight limits.

They're trying to do the right thing.

High schools are more regulated than ever, too. There are mandated water breaks during games. Contact in practice is limited. The slightest hint of a concussion will put a player on the sideline.

I wonder how much difference that ultimately will make, though.

Besides the equipment and practice rules, another major difference today is conditioning. Go to a high school game sometime. Players are bigger, stronger, faster and more athletic than ever.

Even with significant emphasis on player safety with strict tackling guidelines and so on, these on-field collisions are violent. Most of these athletes won't play after graduating from high school, but I don't doubt their parents worry about the lasting effect from all the contact.

Research suggests they should.

Former Florida Gator and New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez had an advanced case of the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy – or C.T.E. for short.

He was 27 years old when he hanged himself in prison, where he was serving a life term for murder. I wouldn't have blamed a single parent for steering their child to bowling, golf or chess after that story came out.

I'm not anti-football, but I do wonder if the sport is not on a slow downward arc. Many sports carry some degree of physical risk, but the benefits far outweigh the negatives. There really are valuable lessons about sacrifice, teamwork, dedication and so on that come from football.

What people in the Saint Leo survey are saying is that it's a good idea to delay all that sacrifice, teamwork and dedication until a young body is ready to handle it.

It's hard to say they're wrong.

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