Pop Warner: A Football Legend
Glenn Scobey Warner, a.k.a. Pop Warner, b. 1871, was an American football player and coach, renowned for being one of the game's greatest innovators and winningest coaches. Following graduation from Cornell University in 1894, Pop worked as a lawyer for a short time, then moved on to his first gig as head coach at the University of Georgia in 1895. In 1951, roughly three years before his death, Pop was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Pop Warner's Legacy
Pop also left his mark on youth football. Today, the Pop Warner Little Scholars program is the largest of its kind, with thousands of young athletes ages five and up participating in Pop Warner leagues throughout the nation.
Its mission statement, according to the organization's website, is "to enable young people to benefit from participation in team sports and activities in a safe and structured environment."
But can football be made safe, as the mission statement above implies?
Is Youth Tackle Football Safe?
Can youth tackle football be made reasonably safe for children as young as five years old to assume risks such as exposure to chronic traumatic encephalopathy(CTE) and a spectrum of brain damage?
Repetitive brain trauma is now a publicly known risk, and repetitive brain trauma can lead to grave health consequences.
In a 2013 Atlantic article about America's most dangerous football, writer Allen Barra quotes former NFL player Kyle Turley: "It should be outlawed and banned," Turley said, in reference to youth football. "There can be serious disruption when those kids who are still developing are hurt. You can die from other sports, but those kind of injuries are freak occurrences."
In contrast to Turley many football industry experts claim that football is "safer than ever", yet science paints a much different picture to back his sentiment and personal experience.
Prepubescent children, specifically those 13 and under are at greatest risk for brain injury and long term brain damage like CTE. Child athlete advocates have a plethora of science to back this claim.
Children are more vulnerable to injury particularly head, neck and spine than adults. A child's brain takes longer to recover from a brain injury than an adult. Their brains have less myelin than adults and key brain structures such as the hippocampus, amygdala and frontal lobes are undergoing key developments between 10 and 13.
Children's brains and heads are disproportionately large compared to the rest of the body, up to at least 14 years of age. A child's neck and chest walls are disproportionately weak, compared to an adult. The extra size and weight of the head, coupled with the child's weaker neck results in less ability to limit the degree to which the head will be subject to rotational forces in a collision.
Large, heavy, plastic helmets adds additional weight to the issues of the head being disproportionately large.
Neurons are the primary thinking and information transfer cell in the brain. The earlier a person becomes exposed to neural wasting activities(brain trauma) like repetitive hits in tackle football, the greater the likelihood that the "neuronal reserve" of such person will be prematurely exhausted before normal aging.
The question is how far do you go to make football "safe"?
The Future of American Football
To make football reasonably safe for young children under 14, including those 5 to 8 years old and under 4'9" who are still are required by California state law to be secured in a car seat or booster seat in the back seat, flag football must be the standard.
For children over 13, helmets and other safety equipment will need to correct current design flaws that increase the risk of injury. Limits on practice times and hit counts, like pitch counts in Little League would also be needed.
Finally, an independent organization to oversee sport risk management and equipment standards, as well as policing who is following those standards is necessary to keep athletes safe.
What may kill American football is failing to understand its risks and failing to do what we can to minimize injury to make it reasonable safe. If we succeed, if we hold football organizations at all levels accountable to the safety of players, the game will remain alive and well for decades to come.
When we protect children, we protect the future.