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NFL Youth Program

NFL Youth Program

Safety Begins at the Beginning: The NFL Youth Program

The National Football League is making an effort to take dangerous hits to the head out of the game and in the process, is finding some resistance. Current NFL players who were taught to play the game a certain way dating back to pee wee leagues are now expected to unlearn what they’ve spent a lifetime trying to learn.

And the pee wee leagues may be the best place to start. While concussion research is ongoing and nobody really knows how concussions or traumatic brain injuries in a young person can effect that person later in life, there is evidence to suggest that effects can be seen sooner in life than we thought and more surprisingly in people who haven’t suffered that many concussions.

Take the case of Chris Henry, the Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver who died in December of 2009 after falling out of a truck during a dispute with his fiancée. His autopsy revealed that the 26 year old wide receiver suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE. It was a sobering revelation in that the degenerative brain disease was believed to primarily affect those who were older and those who played in the trenches and are subjected to many more hits per game than the position of wide receiver. What’s even more concerning is that he was never reported to have had a concussion in either his college career, or his five years in the NFL. This leads to the possibility that CTE can be caused by repetitive smaller hits that don’t cause concussions.

This is one of several cases that have caused concerns about the effects of the game on players of all levels. Of course the NFL has a vested interest in making the game safer for its current players, as well as for its future players. Enrollment in youth football leagues has been on the decline. This is why the NFL has stepped up its efforts to encourage the sports’ youngest players to participate in a manner that will hopefully reduce traumatic brain injuries.

Through its youth development organization USA Football, the NFL funds Heads Up Football, a program designed to promote safety in youth football. Among the tenets of this program are coaching education, recognizing and reacting appropriately to a concussion and introducing a tackling technique that does not include leading with the head. Ironically, this “new” technique is actually a throwback to the tackling styles of the 1960s, before advancements in helmet technology allowed for the lead-with-the-head tackling style.

NFL teams also conduct Mom’s Football Safety Clinics to teach mothers of young players the latest on concussion awareness, heat and hydration, proper equipment fitting and strength and conditioning. On-field drills for moms are a part of the program.

There are other youth football programs, not associated with the NFL, which encourage baseline cognitive testing of each player at the beginning of the season to help determine when an athlete is suffering a traumatic brain injury. And, many states have passed laws with various degrees of protections for players.

Still, we are far from a consensus on the effectiveness of such initiatives. After all, football is a full contact sport and injuries are part of the game. There are those who believe kids shouldn’t even play until age 14 because their bodies, especially the neck, isn’t developed enough to protect the brain from a savage hit. Another way to think of it, by starting at 14 years of age, instead of say six, the body and brain are being spared eight football seasons worth of hits.

An additional argument for waiting until high school is that the coaching is typically better at that level. Youth football coaches are usually volunteers or lowly paid, whereas coaches at the high school level are paid and probably have a higher level of schooling when it comes to coaching kids and teaching the game.

For those that think a child must begin early in order to make it to the highest levels, that’s not always the case. One example is five-time Super Bowl quarterback Tom Brady, whose father kept him from playing until he was in 9th grade.

Amidst all the growing evidence and concern over the potential of brain injuries comes Friday Night Tykes, the “reality” show depicting eight- and nine-year-olds in a Texas youth league, in which coaches are shown encouraging their players to hurt the other team’s players, and kids are shown hitting helmet to helmet in drills. Those are the parts we get to see. What we don’t see are the hours of footage that may show coaches issuing corrective action for those hits. But, that wouldn’t be good television, would it?

——————————————————————————————————————————————————— Author: Mike Zeitzmann Mike Zeitzmann has spent 30 years in broadcasting, including working with the late sportscaster Pat Summerall. He is an avid sports junkie and gelato lover.  He currently lives in Italy.