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Less Touch Football

Pop Warner Limits Practice Contact for Youth Football Players

By Alex Lubischer

Pop Warner Little Scholars, Inc. – the largest and oldest youth football, cheer and dance organization in the United States, based in Philadelphia – announced rule changes on June 13 that will limit the amount, and type, of contact allowed in football practice.

“We’re proud to be the first football organization at any level to pass this kind of measure,” said Pop Warner Executive Director Jon Butler. “We think it’s important.”

The rule changes, which will take effect in the fall 2012 football season, are Pop Warner’s latest approach to protect its young athletes by mandating improved health and safety measures. The ruling will affect 400,000 children aged 5 to 16 in Pop Warner organizations in 43 states and five foreign countries.

Under these new rules, the amount of contact allowed in practice is limited to a maximum of 1/3 of practice time: either 40 minutes total of each practice or 1/3 of total weekly practice time. Additionally, the ruling bars coaches from requiring full-speed, head-on blocking or tackling drills in which players line up more than three yards apart. Starting at three yards or closer, like defensive and offensive linemen do, reduces the impact, therefore reducing the danger.

Dr. Julian Bailes, chairman of the Pop Warner Medical Advisory Board and co-director of the NorthShore Neurological Institute, stressed the importance of limiting head-to-head contact and reducing concussions among young athletes. “If you assume the short-term and long-term effects of concussion are proportional to the exposure that you have, research has shown that 60 percent-plus of head impacts or concussions occur in practice. These could largely be eliminated.”

Concussions at a young age can lead to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) later in life. This neurodegenerative disease has seen a recent spike in numbers among professional and college football players. Symptoms include mood changes, lack of impulse control, mental confusion and depression. In extreme cases, it has led to suicide; notably, the 2010 death of 21-year-old University of Pennsylvania linebacker Owen Thomas.

Thomas’ mother’s testimony factored heavily in Congressional hearings on The Concussion Treatment and Care Tools Act of 2010. This legislation would have implemented concussion management guidelines in student athletes. It passed the House of Representatives but failed to pass the Senate.

“Right around January 2010, a series of congressional hearings took place and increased media attention focused on the whole issue of concussions and, in particular, football,” said Butler. “That was really the prompt we need[ed] to start to address this issue at our level.”

“I think that it’s pretty well appreciated that the numbers [of concussions] are rising at every level of football,” said Bailes, who called the new rule changes more preventative than reactionary. “We have not, to our knowledge, had a big problem with concussions in youth football, yet. But we always want to be vigilant. We didn’t want to do anything too dramatic to change the game. These rules are affecting practice methods.”

Bailes doesn’t anticipate opposition to the new rules at the local level by youth football coaches or parents. “There may be some pushback to change, but I think the majority of parents and coaches will realize this is very doable,” he said. “This makes sense, and it could really help the future of the sport.”

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