With parents' safety concerns growing about their own kids playing football – and concussions, fairly or not, becoming synonymous with the game – over the last few years the drumbeat for change has gotten increasingly louder. And as a result, the governing body of youth football in the United States will fundamentally alter how the game is played and taught – before it seems there's no one left to teach it to.
Legions of parents are increasingly concerned because a growing body of scientific evidence connects repeated head blows to serious, future health problems – a stunning example of which recently aired on HBO's magazine show, Real Sports. The first-rate cable program chronicled the precipitous, six-year decline of Kevin Turner, a lifetime football player and college and NFL star, who died last year of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, at the age of 46.
What made his story even more poignant was that as Turner approached his own death, the former Alabama great struggled with the decision as whether to allow his oldest son, Nolan, to continue playing football (which he eventually did). Real Sports included an interview with an expert doctor, specializing in post-mortem brain trauma. After studying Turner's brain tissue, Dr. Ann McKee concluded unequivocally that playing football since childhood was the reason he developed ALS, also known as Lou Gerhig's Disease. And with that, Turner sat at the intersection of player, parent and football-produced fatality.
Quite possibly, last week's airing of Turner's tragic story might have been the final impetus for USA Football, which oversees the amateur clinics and leagues across the country, to announce just days later major changes to protect kids from head blows – even sub-concussive blows – whose impact has been determined by scientific research to be cumulatively dangerous, even potentially fatal, as it was in Turner's case. We here at the American Council have written frequently about concussions and their effects, and our publication on the topic, which you can access here, separates facts from fiction.
Since 2009, the number of boys playing football between the ages of 6 and 12 has reportedly plunged nearly 20 percent. And at the same time, due to a shrinking player pool and concerns over safety, some lower and middle schools have eliminated their programs altogether. These shifts have prompted USA Football to rethink its entire operation, while putting a premium on brain safety.
"Among the rule changes:" wrote The New York Times, which first reported the story Tuesday, "Each team will have six to nine players on the field, instead of 11; the field will be far smaller; kickoffs and punts will be eliminated; and players will start each play in a crouching position instead of in a three-point stance." All of the moves, which are being tested and if deemed effective will be implemented in the next few years, are being made to reduce the chances and frequency of both low and high-impact collisions.
Officials say that in addition to the new mandate that players rotate positions, other changes like shrinking the field, lessening players' speed and preventing the build-up of momentum should make the game safer.
“This is the future of the game,” Scott Hallenbeck, said USA Football's executive director, speakikng with the Times over the weekend at the organization’s annual convention in Orlando. “All of this is all about how do we do a better job, and a smarter job around the development of athletes and coaches in the game of football.”