I opened my email the other day and I smiled as I saw my grandnephew looking very handsome and stylish in his football gear with his helmet in hand. He looked quite athletic standing there with his smile and a fresh haircut.
And suddenly, I gasped. There was something very wrong with the picture that I just smiled at. What was it? My nephew is 7 years old! How can a 7-year-old kid look athletic? And more important, what was he doing with full football gear?
I am president of the LA84 Foundation, which supports youth sports organizations in Southern California. We receive between 30 and 40 requests for funding from youth football leagues annually. As a result of our concern for keeping sports safe for youngsters, we held a national conference in 2013 so that we could learn about the status of the safety in youth football.
Based on the information derived from the conference and other available findings related to the risk of concussions in the very young playing tackle football, we made the decision not to fund organizations offering tackle football to youngsters 8 and under. On the LA84 website you can read the grant guidelines that emerged from the 2013 conference.
We knew that by doing this, a number of the leagues we used to fund would no longer be eligible. But, we also knew that the major proponent of youth football, the Pop Warner Leagues, does not require any of their leagues to have tackle football at the sub-8-year levels.
Under our revised grant guidelines, only 10 of the 30 requests we received in 2014 qualified for funding consideration. We expect that organizations will limit full-speed contact no more than a total 90 minutes per week. Trained personnel should be present as safety monitors at practices to help identify concussions or other injuries and have trained medics at all games. We require training of all tackle coaches in the Bobby Hosea Train Me Up Academy, "helmet-free" tacking method or the USA Football Heads Up Training. These tackling methods are designed to eliminate or at least reduce direct impact to the head. It seems logical to us that the less head trauma young kids experience, the less likely they will face a future with head injuries.
One other important aspect of football for the youngest athletes we learned about had to do with the officiating. Many leagues have sets of officials that work games from sunrise to sundown. As expected, by mid-day they are exhausted and not in the condition to call games properly as the day progresses. Many of them are high school officials and are not familiar with, or choose to ignore, safety rules for the younger age groups.
So, what about my handsome grandnephew? Well, I had a long talk with his father. I was heartened when he reminded me what his first son who is three years older had said when he was asked if he wanted to play football, and I quote, "What, that barbaric sport? No way!" Yet his younger brother answered the call. His dad thinks he will not stay in it too long. And, he promised me he will check on the officials and make certain that the league is following the best practices we expect of those we fund.
While I appreciate the benefits that many players derive from youth football, I also know that other sports can have an equally positive impact. I truly hope that my nephew's interests will soon go to a safer sport.