Sunday, April 22, 2018
Sports

The only football preteens should play: flag

Last week there was a legal settlement in the heartbreaking case of Donovan Hill, a Los Angeles teenager who, at age 13, was paralyzed in a Pop Warner game.

The NFL can buy its way out of any courtroom problem. But youth leagues and public high schools are not rolling in money, and this points toward the ticking bomb in football economics. Lawsuits regarding neurological harm from youth and high school football began roughly a decade ago, and are becoming common. Class-action claims may extend litigation to large numbers of prep players. The NFL's concussion settlement with former players will pay most of them less than $100,000. Awards to injured high school players are starting to come in at the million-plus level, since minors generally can't assume risk in the way adults can. Few public school systems will be able to sustain million-dollar legal settlements stemming from football, or be able to afford athletic insurance if big awards proliferate.

The NFL has made baby steps toward caring about traumatic brain injury. Last weekend, star receiver Antonio Brown was held out of the Steelers-Broncos game because of a concussion, while starting Kansas City offensive linemen Mitch Morse and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif sat because of concussions, their absence a factor in the New England win. During the regular season, stars including Luke Kuechly missed games for concussion protocol.

But if the NFL really means what it says about making football safer, it would be focusing on the high school version of the sport — where there are 500 players for each one professional, and where the time bomb ticks. The NFL will be playing football for a long time. This may not be true for youth organizations and public school systems, which would deprive pro football of its free minor leagues, taint the name of the game, and turn off many fans.

Hill now will receive the lifetime medical care he requires. He was injured in 2011 at the Midget Orange Bowl, a Pop Warner championship held on a turf field before spectators with cheerleaders dancing and screaming coaches along the sidelines.

Events like this are not staged with children's interests in mind; they are staged to stroke the egos of the adults involved.

Youth full-pads football simply shouldn't be played — outlawed if necessary. But don't take my word for it, take Archie Manning's.

He did not let Peyton and Eli put on helmets until they reached seventh grade. In youth, these two future Hall of Famers learned football by playing flag — which is how all kids below middle-school age should learn.

— New York Times

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