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Should Tackling Stay in Youth Football? Some NFL Greats Say No

SE Flag Football instead of Tackle

Simply put, people love watching and playing football even though it has its risks, and it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere for the foreseeable future.

Opposition to tackling in youth football is picking up steam, but you may be surprised who is leading the charge.  

One is a Dallas Cowboys great who was named to the Pro Bowl four times, holds a 97.1 career passer rating (fourth highest all-time in the NFL), and has set Cowboys team records for passing touchdowns and passing yards. The other is a Hall of Famer with a reputation of being one of the toughest players in the league, having spent 20 years playing in the NFL, making an NFL-record 297 consecutive regular-season starts and being named to the Pro Bowl 11 times.

I’m referring to Tony Romo and Brett Favre, respectively, and both have recently come out against tackling in youth football.   

I’ve written about preventing injuries in youth sports before, and we’re big proponents of maintaining a safe playing environment here at NCSA. But the truth is that many more people are becoming concerned with head injuries among football players — young and older.

In fact, according to the Aspen Institute, participation in youth tackle football from ages 6 to 17 has dropped by 19 percent from 2011 to 2016. That’s a huge dip, and it’s obvious that parents are concerned with their kids’ long-term safety. But some are pointing out that there’s still a way for kids to keep playing football while having fun and developing their skills: take out the tackling.

At a recent football camp, Tony Romo shared, “I’m not entirely sure that tackling in third grade makes you a better junior in high school. You can play flag football.” Additionally, Brett Favre has been actively working to ban youth tackle football in the state of Illinois by promoting the Dave Duerson Act. He adds, “The body, the brain, the skull is not developed in your teens and single digits. I cringe. I see these little kids get tackled and the helmet is bigger than everything else on the kid combined.”

Favre also estimates that he has suffered “thousands” of concussions during his lengthy football career. These days, Favre is also a spokesperson for Prevacus, a nasal-inhaler medication that’s designed to treat concussions and prevent CTE, though the drug is still in the testing phase.

The NFL remains the most-profitable sports league in the world, and there is no shortage of passionate college football fans in the United States. Simply put, people love watching and playing football even though it has its risks, and it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere for the foreseeable future.

However, that doesn’t mean we can’t make football safer, especially for kids. According to the Daily Mail, “Researchers at VA Boston Healthcare System and Boston University School of Medicine found that among 211 players who were posthumously diagnosed with CTE, those who began playing tackle football before the age of 12 suffered an earlier onset of symptoms (typically cognitive, behavior, and mood issues) by an average of 13 years.”

If this is the reality that we are dealing with, perhaps it’s time to start asking the tough questions, and maybe transitioning youth football to be a flag football game is the best long-term decision for safety. After all, other sports are also taking a long look at its youth-safety rules. US Soccer recently banned headers for kids 10 and younger, and limited headers to practice for those 11 to 13. USA Baseball has created pitching guidelines that are being instituted all over the country.

It might be a tough conversation, but it’s one worth having.

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