Prep Sports

The tackle football debate continues

Justis column: Some suggest flag football until high school is way to go

Is flag football the way to go, until a player enters high school? Some suggest that may be the best approach. (The Gazette)
Is flag football the way to go, until a player enters high school? Some suggest that may be the best approach. (The Gazette)

With fall fast approaching, kids across the country are preparing for football season.

It must be time to, once again, debate the pros and cons of tackle football.

I have to admit I keep going back and forth on the subject. My 11-year-old grandson is beginning his second season of tackle ball.

In an article published on the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program website, executive director Tom Farrey and editorial director Jon Solomon explore “what if flag football becomes the standard way of playing football until high school?”

They note football remains popular at the NFL and college levels, but there are signs of decreasing public support, particularly at the youth and high school levels where participation rates are down. The wisdom of putting on a helmet is partially to blame for the decrease in kids playing the game.

I won’t go into all the statistics backing up the claims, but after all the medical research showing the harm concussions and repetitive subconcussive hits to the head can cause, state lawmakers in California, Illinois, New York and Maryland recently introduced legislation proposing minimum ages of 12 years or older for tackle football participation. The Concussion Legacy Foundation launched a public education program urging parents to delay signing their kids up for tackle football before the age of 14.

Supporters of delaying the starting age for tackle note flag is a safer, age-appropriate choice that reduces the risk of injury while at the same time providing education on the sport’s skills and allowing the kids to enjoy the physical, emotional and social benefits of playing sports.

The Aspen report notes over the last several years, “flag (has) surpassed tackle as the most commonly played version of the game among kids ages six-to-12 (3.3 percent flag, 2.9 percent tackle),” according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Flag participation in that age group was up 38.9 percent, more than any other team sport.

The paper analyzes this trend from five angles — public health, youth participation, the impact on high school football, what it means for NFL and college ball and how would this shift impact the values promoted through sport.

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“Our overarching conclusion: Children, the game and communities are likely to benefit if flag football becomes the standard way of playing before high school, with proper tackling technique taught in practice settings in the age group leading into it,” the report notes.

Looking at the public health aspect, Boston University’s ongoing CTE research suggests a close relationship between subconcussive hits and CTE. Scientists believe children may be more vulnerable to brain injury because their brains are physically immature and have “still-developing neural circuitry, and in part because they have relatively large heads and relatively weak neck and shoulder muscles ... increasing the likelihood of a brain-jarring ‘bobblehead effect.’”

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report to Congress noted brain injuries in children can cause changes in “health, thinking and behavior that affect learning, self-regulation, and social participation” and can negatively affect a child’s “future ability to learn and perform in school.”

Dr. Robert Cantu, co-founder of the CTE Center at Boston University, advocates tackle not be offered to children until age 14. But at the same time, Farrey and Solomon’s paper notes “a definitive casual link between youth football participation and long-term neurological disease has not been established” because most of the research has involved former pro and college players.

Dr. Andrew Peterson, University of Iowa football team physician and executive committee member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness, believes the health benefits of playing tackle outweigh the risks.

Aspen’s analysis notes “among youth, only 36 percent of males and 17 percent of females today get the recommended level of one hour of daily physical activity, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ... Tackle football is one option for children, especially for heavier kids.”

But, and now I’m confused, “The emerging evidence suggests that football can make a more meaningful contribution to public health by holding off on offering tackle until at least adolescence. If the hockey model were to be followed (delaying the introduction of body-checking in games until age 13), football players would learn proper tackling techniques in controlled practice settings in the year or two leading up to the age at which tackling is introduced in games ...”

l Nancy Justis is a former competitive swimmer and college sports information director. She is a partner with Outlier Creative Communications. Let her know what you think at njustis@cfu.net

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