In the wake of concerns over CTE and concussions affecting those who play tackle football for prolonged periods, there’s been a resurgence in interest in flag football. Former NFL stars like Michael Vick and Donovan Darius took part in a professional flag football league. Meanwhile, current NFL star Drew Brees recently started a co-ed youth flag football league in an attempt to make football more accessible for kids without exposing them to the risks of head trauma at an early age.
Now, the Aspen Institute Sports and Society Program has released a white paper that says flag football should be the standard way of playing the game for youths until they get to high school in order to minimize the risk of head injuries.
“This debate has been pushed to the forefront because it’s clear how much more is at stake now starting with brains of children, which need to function effectively and efficiently to thrive in the new, information-based economy,” reads the white paper.
The ideas in the paper are recommendations based on research and studies conducted by the institute, whose mission is to “convene leaders, foster dialogue, and inspire solutions that help sport serve the public interest, with a focus on the development of healthy children and communities.” Specifically, those recommendations include:
- That USA Football, Pop Warner, and all youth football organizations only play flag football before the age of 14.
- That those organizations begin teaching the basic fundamentals of tackle football, including blocking, tackling, and hitting techniques as early as age 12.
- That high schools and colleges minimize the amount of tackling and collisions that take place outside of games by adopting Dartmouth-style instruction and practice standards (hopefully that includes their practice dummies).
- That all levels of football, from youth programs to colleges, expand their flag football opportunities.
As you might expect, these recommendations have been met with swift dissent from those in charge of current youth football programs.
“We think a lot of that is based on very one-sided, very narrow research without any control group,” Jon Butler, executive director of Pop Warner youth football, told CBS Sports. “There is no evidence that starting tackle football at any given age causes any particular problems.”
Even if that were true, it’s clear that participation in football is dropping precipitously because of concerns over head trauma and other injuries. The number of high school football players has been dropping for four consecutive years and the number of children between six and 12 who plays football has dropped 17 percent in the last five years.
Even if Butler is to be believed, no one believes it. So it might be a good idea to consider the recommendations, at least on some level, for the good of the sport. Of course, as we’ve learned over and over, “football people” are a strange bunch and have a lot of weird ideas about the “sanctity” of tackle football and what it means for America.
So, unfortunately, it’s going to take more than a whole lot of research and a whole lot of head injuries to convince them.