The Future of High-School Football

Would you let your son play football? The answer to that simple question is becoming increasingly thorny, as is the future of football for American’s youth. According to an ESPN report from last November, Pop Warner, American’s largest youth football organization, saw a historic plunge in participation from 2010 to 2012. The main reason? Concern about concussions. Despite advances in safety equipment—and the NFL’s continuing overwhelming popularity—anxiety about head injuries in football has never been higher. With health concerns mounting, Westchester football devotees must compose a playbook to keep their sport alive.

The concussion conundrum

As someone who played and now coaches high-school football in Westchester County, I’ve seen a shift in the concerns of parents. Injury worries, which once revolved around broken bones and torn ligaments, are now focused upstairs.

“I’ve been in practice 20 years, and, 20 years ago, even 10 years ago, about 95 percent of my office visits were for knee, ankle, shoulder, muscular/skeletal trauma, and 5 percent were concussions,” says Eric Small, MD, a Mount Kisco-based sports-medicine and concussion specialist for Westchester Health. “Now, it’s about 25 percent concussions.”

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define a concussion as “a type of traumatic brain injury caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head that can change the way your brain normally works.” Are concussions suddenly occurring at a much higher rate? Or is there simply more awareness now?

“[I don’t know], per se, if the number of concussions are up, but certainly the recognition is way up,” Dr. Small says, noting the increased media attention to the issue.

Around 2003, researchers began linking football with long-term brain damage, including depression and Alzheimer’s disease. Degenerative brain disease was found in a few former NFL players who took their own lives in the last several years. The findings led to congressional hearings and a lawsuit brought by thousands of former NFL players against the league. The players, who accused the NFL of withholding evidence of the long-term damage of concussions, received a settlement of $765 million in 2013. (In late June, the settlement was revised to an uncapped amount, allowing for more players to be fairly compensated). 

Effect on football’s youth

The NFL’s concussion debate is now affecting the game’s lower levels, not in the form of lawsuits, but in shaky participation. While representatives from two of Westchester’s largest youth football organizations—Westchester Youth Football League and Taconic Youth Football—both said that their numbers are holding steady, they acknowledged the growing concerns.

Last year, the Westchester Youth Football League had 1,000 kids in its tackle division, which includes 14 town organizations, says WYFL Vice President Chris Tateo. He doesn’t think that’s a big change from recent years, but the concussion issue “has really hit home the past year or so. I’m sure if you ask me five years from now, there will be a difference [in participation].”

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Participation numbers were not available for Westchester’s high schools (Section 1 Executive Director Jennifer Simmons, who oversees the county’s public-school teams, did not respond to an email request), but there is evidence that the sport is hurting a bit, as schools with dwindling rosters are forced to drop freshmen or junior varsity teams, or partner with neighboring schools. In 2002, Briarcliff High School played in the state championship in Class C, the fourth of five classification divisions based on enrollment. In 2013, Briarcliff merged its football program with Alexander Hamilton High School in Elmsford, another small school, because it did not have enough players to field its own team.

This past spring, eight schools—Peekskill and seven teams from Yonkers—formed their own league outside of Section 1 play, in part because of diminishing numbers that have made it difficult to compete. Steve Quinn, head coach at Fox Lane High School in Bedford, says his numbers are stable, but he has “seen that the number of middle-school players has dropped dramatically over the past decade. When I first coached at the middle-school level, we had roughly 75 players on the team. This past year, there were approximately 35 players. I suspect that concerns around concussions has a great deal to do with that.”

Yet some schools are thriving. Scarsdale High School Head Coach Andy Verboys said that in 2013 he had 52 players—the largest team in school history. “I think football is going through a phase,” he says, “and awareness is great because the equipment companies spend millions in research and better the equipment. Many kids over the years have died in car crashes, but the automotive industry did not close down.”

What the future holds

For parents who would allow their kids to play football, the next question to dominate the conversation may be, “When should you allow your child to play?” Quinn, who has sons ages 6 and 9, says that he “would absolutely let both play football beginning in 7th grade if they decided to play.” But should that thinking be reversed?

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“As you get older, the injury rates go up,” says Dr. Small. “So it’s much safer at a younger age.” Football is safest at ages 6 to 12, he says, because kids weigh about the same, they’re not too big or strong, so the forces they impart on each other are not that severe. “Once they’re in high school, there are many, many more injuries, and the severity is much greater,” he says. “The injuries and the collisions are much more intense.”

Bill Groner, a senior/managing partner at Worby Groner Edelman LLP in White Plains, handles personal-injury cases. The Bedford resident is not seeing a rise in football head trauma cases, he says, because concussions are becoming an inherent risk of football, a risk that participants are assumed to understand upon playing the sport. That doesn’t lessen the concerns, though.

“As a parent, I am enormously concerned,” he says. “My son is playing football, and the biggest issue that we parents talk about is significant injury playing football.” He allows his son to play in middle school and agrees with Dr. Small that it is safer with younger kids. He also sees benefits in the game.

“It builds all sorts of skill sets,” Groner says. “It’s enormously competitive. It requires great discipline, and a number of skills I’d like to see my son develop. You don’t generally as a parent want to take away someone’s passion to pursue something they love.”

But at the high-school level, one incident could end the fun. “I would consider saying after the first concussion I would not allow him to play,” he says.

“One concussion is one too many,” says Michael Kaplen, a Pleasantville attorney who says he would not allow his son to play. Kaplen, who previously served as chair of the New York State Traumatic Brain Injury Services Coordinating Council, says football is a “concussion-delivery system. You cannot make football safe.”

With the growing concerns, Dr. Small thinks youth football participation may drop a bit in the future, but that the sport will endure. “I think it’s going to be around forever.”

With two sons playing youth football in Somers, Tim Sullivan, head coach at Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, understands parents’ concerns, but he also knows that there are inherent risks in any athletic endeavor. “I let my sons play—it is a risk for sure,” he says. “Life is a risk, and you never know; you can’t hold them in a bubble.” 

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