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Anita L. DeFrantz Headshot

Saving Youth Football From Another Hit

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With new granting guidelines (PDF) for youth football, the LA84 Foundation seeks to lead the nation.

The recent revelations about brain injuries and memory problems of former NFL players, including Tony Dorsett and Brett Favre, underscore the rising national concern about the dangers of brain injuries in football. Spurred by this heightened awareness, the LA84 Foundation, as the leading funder of youth sports across Southern California, faced a challenge: we wanted to keep our youth involved in athletics, including the popular sport of football, but not at the risk of their safety.

We felt a responsibility to take a close look at the impacts of the tackle football programs we support, and have chosen to adopt important new safety protocols that we expect will ultimately help protect our region's youngest football players.

It is important to note that football has an extremely positive impact on the lives of countless young people, especially in the economically depressed communities where many of the programs we fund operate. Football provides a structured environment where young men and some young women can learn, exercise, and interact with role models and use their time constructively, and we understand that kids will continue playing the sport even if we took the extreme stance of pulling all funding for youth football in Southern California.

However, the facts are clear: football has the highest reported concussion rate of any high school sport, and the act of tackling is the cause of over 80% of all reported injuries in the sport. Sports concussion expert Dr. Robert Cantu of the Sports Legacy Institute leads the chorus of researchers who assert that young children should not participate in tackle football, as younger brains are more likely to suffer long-term traumatic injury from concussions.

These researchers all agree that more research on head trauma in youth sports is needed, and that more resources need to be committed to understanding the problem. In the meantime, however, we recognized that youth football organizations have it in their power to reduce the risk of injury right now.

Last week, the LA84 Foundation released a set of guidelines for youth football organizations applying for grants, and moving forward we will give preference to proposals from programs that adhere to these standards. In these guidelines, we expect our grant recipients to delay tackle football until participants have reached eight years of age, and to limit the number of drills and practice time that involves player-on-player contact. Medics and safety monitors should be present at practices and games-- and if programs can't afford additional personnel, we're willing to help foot the bill.

In addition to implementing the grant guidelines, the LA84 Foundation will work for improvements in two important areas -- referee enforcement of age-appropriate rules designed to protect player safety, and education of parents and coaches on the importance of standards that protect the long-term health of their players.

When the LA84 Foundation was founded with $93 million in proceeds from the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, it was charged with the mission to serve youth through sport. Right now, we believe that the best way we can remain true to this mission is to work on effective solutions to this issue of sports-related brain trauma among our children. As author Ken Kesey once said, "You don't lead by pointing and telling people some place to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case."

Some of our colleagues have urged us to simply stop funding football. I am convinced that walking away from the sport is not the best way to promote change. If we really want to make football safer for young players, we must remain committed and active in this discussion. We're keeping our line of communication open with programs that want to improve their standards, and believe that our grant guidelines will allow us to remain involved with these football programs while influencing the way that they operate over time.

We have already seen positive results. After we published our guidelines last week, a coach in an LA84-funded organization reached out to me saying that he applauded the Foundation wholeheartedly, but that his program would no longer be eligible for our grants. He was encouraged, however, because the Foundation's new guidelines will give his board a compelling reason to reconsider the organization's policy of permitting tackling at ages six and seven.

Changing the culture of youth football is only one aspect of our efforts to protect the safety of young athletes. Brain trauma is a problem in several sports. We are thankful for the cooperation of youth football organizations that share our commitment to protecting children, and the LA84 Foundation looks forward to working with likeminded organizations in other sports too as we address this serious and growing problem in youth sports.

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