Sunday’s sports pages from sea to shining sea not only included an Associated Press column regarding gambling on NFL games, but also contained an AP article on the future of youth football. The item from Chris Jenkins provides an accurate snapshot of the practical consequences flowing from the combination of a generation of helicopter parenting and the advancement of medical knowledge regarding the long-term effects of mild brain trauma.
With or without the concussion lawsuits and the suicides of Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, mothers and fathers would continue to shy away from exposing young children to the more immediate risks of playing football. If padded youth tackle football will survive over the long term (and, frankly, for kids under the age of 12 I’m not sure that it should), efforts must be made to ensure that coaches will be more responsible.
Plenty of the men who give their time to the coaching of youth football undoubtedly have good intentions and use appropriate methods, placing the well-being of their players over the “win-at-all-costs” mentality that infects coaches at every stage of the sport. But some coaches make youth football their own personal NFL, allowing an obsession with victory to cloud common sense and, at times, basic decency.
Forty years ago, youth coaches routinely denied their players water during practice, kicked them in the asses when they were loafing (I still have a cleat mark or two in mine), and corrected alignment errors by jerking them by the facemasks into the right position. Though the days of football coaches laying hands on kids have long since ended (except for Mike Vanderjagt . . . allegedly), plenty of youth coaches still insist on a ruthless, aggressive approach from boys who should still be boys, in every way.
I’ve witnessed it. Several years ago, Florio Jr. had soccer practice. Nearby, a youth football team was padded up. The coach was barking at kids no older than 10 like they were adults, cajoling them to be “mean” and “nasty” and to hit the other team so hard that when they cross paths at the mall during high school the opponents will still be intimidated.
It’s shameful and it’s irresponsible and it needs to end, or youth tackle football eventually will.
And that’s where the NFL’s assumption that changes made at the top of the sport will trickle down could be erroneous. Pro football coaches are accountable to the league office. College football coaches answer to the NCAA. At the high-school level and below, who’s really paying attention to what these coaches say and do?
That’s why it’s critical for efforts like the Lystedt Law to be successful in every state. Without external bright-line rules regarding concussions, coaches who are largely left to their own devices will continue to be able to do things the way they’ve always been done, regardless of any advancements that are made to protect the grown men who play the game.
At every level below college, the challenge for football will be to adapt to the new expectations of society and parents and players, or to face the fact that players and parents and ultimately society will choose another path. Though it won’t kill the sport completely, it will make it harder for colleges and NFL teams to identify and develop the best of the best available players.
Thus, every college team and every NFL franchise has a direct interest in finding ways to ensure that the stewards of the youth and high-school versions of the game behave responsibly, prudently, and properly when it comes to ensuring the health and safety of the boys and young men entrusted to them.