Youth Football Injuries and The Decline of Youth Sport Participation

In some Texas communities, high school football is more important than college or pro games. In fact, in the 2012 season, over one million high school athletes participated in football. With these large numbers of youth football participants come large numbers of injuries.

The Center for Disease Control estimates that high school athletes sustain nearly 200 million injuries a year nationwide. Nearly 40% of treated injuries are sustained by children ages 5-14, and the rate of injury severity only increases with age. In the wake of these statistics, organizations like Pop Warner are seeing a decline in participation levels.

Though Texas may still be holding steady when it comes to football participant numbers, 2012 saw Pop Warner’s biggest decline in numbers yet. The organization lost some 23,612 players in the 2012 season. This was a 9.5% decrease since 2010, the largest decline Pop Warner has ever seen. Some doctors believe it is because of the recent discovery and media coverage of long term sustained injuries like CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Even if they don’t lead to CTE, head injuries can still cause long term damage, personality changes, and even paralysis.

In 2007, Blake Hunt, a New York high school senior, was practicing in what would otherwise be a normal scrimmage day. On this day, however, he hit a running back from the wrong angle, snapping his head back. Hunt shattered his C5 vertebrae and suffered paralysis from the waist down.

After treatment, Hunt filed a claim against the Department of Education, alleging that his injury was sustained due to improper supervision and training. Additionally, the 140lb teenager had been matched disproportionately against larger opponents, and was asked to scrimmage while nursing an already injured leg. The case was settled before it went to trial and Hunt received $8 million in settlement money. Though he plans to use the money to pay for college education, Hunt’s life is now forever changed.

Individual coaches can also be responsible for youth sports injuries. A 12-year-old Mansfield Texas boy sustained severe injuries to his leg in 2008 when his coach allegedly swung a tackling dummy towards him during practice. Ryan Spence’s parents filed claims against the North Texas Youth Football Association, the head coach, and the assistant coach for inappropriate drill practices.

Media coverage on stories like Hunt’s and Spence’s have affected youth sport participation rates nationwide. Parents are concerned about the safety of their children and unsure about the precautionary measures schools should be taking. In response to safety concerns and 2012’s dropping numbers, the Pop Warner organization enacted a few rule changes:

  • No full-speed head-on tackling drills are allowed in which the players start more than three yards apart.
  • Physical contact must be limited to no more than a third of the practice time.

This still may not be enough to quell parents’ fears, as numbers continue to decline and professional athletes continue to voice concern.

Long-term injury statistics have led the NFL to create Heads Up Football, an initiative which strives to make football a safer sport. The initiative provides coach certification, equipment fitting protocols, tackling and blocking safety guidelines, and concussion recognition and response education. The initiative was launched in 2012 and is partnered with over 90 organizations to bring awareness to parents, schools, and health departments.

Still, parents are hesitant to allow their children to participate in youth sports. Essentially, parents are looking for regulation changes in favor of youth safety. Until that happens, they will have to use their own judgment as to whether or not they believe sports are safe enough for their children.