At its national conference this past weekend, the American Academy of Pediatrics released new recommendations for how to improve the safety of youth football, including coaches and officials enforcing current rules, limiting the number of head impacts, and expansion of non-tackling leagues.
In its policy statement, the academy reviewed a host of recent research to determine which changes could improve the safety of youth football. Particularly divisive was the issue of reducing the number of full-contact practices allowed on a weekly basis—something already happening in Ohio and California. While the National Federation of State High School Associations and researchers from the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine have called for limits on the number of full-contact football practices, the AAP’s position statement cites research suggesting a “decrease in time spent practicing proper tackling technique may lead to an increase in the magnitude of impacts during games and an increase in the risk of concussion.”
“It’s this paradox that makes it so important for leagues to teach proper tackling technique and skills to avoid and absorb tackles, even if no tackling occurs throughout the seasons,” said Dr. Greg Landry in a statement.
Some, such as Dr. Bob Cantu, the author of Concussions and Our Kids, have proposed an outright ban on tackle football for youths under the age of 14. The pediatrics academy suggests such a restriction would “likely decrease the risk of injuries for the age levels at which tackling would be prohibited"; however, it could increase the risk of injuries once tackling does become allowed, as the youths would have no experience with the proper techniques. Accordingly, the academy believes if tackling is prohibited until a certain age, it is imperative for coaches to offer “instruction in proper tackling technique as well as the teaching of the skills necessary to evade tackles and absorb being tackled.”
“Removing tackling would dramatically reduce the risk of serious injuries to players, but it would fundamentally change the sport of football,” said Dr. William Meehan, one of the policy statement’s co-authors, in a statement. “Parents and players will need to decide whether the health risks associated with tackling are outweighed by the recreational benefits of the game.”
Making more minor changes could help improve the safety of youth football as well, the academy suggested. For one, officials and coaches “must ensure proper enforcement of the rules of the game,” adopting a zero-tolerance approach to “illegal, head-first hits.” The AAP encouraged “stronger sanctions” for players who come into contact with their opponents’ heads, particularly defenseless players. It also recommended having athletic trainers on the sidelines during practices and games whenever possible, citing “preliminary evidence between athletic trainers’ presence and a decreased incidence of sport-related injuries.”
The pediatricians group also encouraged the expansion of non-tackling leagues, as some youths may want to play football without being subject to massive collisions.
Photo: College Station High School football players warm up before a high school football game against last month in College Station, Texas.(Sam Craft/College Station Eagle/AP)
A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.