How to save youth football

Football is a dangerous game, and dangerous in a way that is far more frightening than it used to be.

As somebody that plays the game at an amateur level, it’s easy to employ a level of cognitive dissonance when it comes to physical injuries to most parts of your body. Ankle, knee, shoulder injuries are all common in football, but until you damage something badly it’s very easy to push the risk to the back of your mind and play as if you’re invincible.

Players in the NFL are much the same – nobody plays with the fear of getting hurt.

Now however the risk has become deeper with every new study that comes along linking football with brain trauma and brain injuries. The effect that can have is devastating, and you hear more and more from players who don’t regret their time playing, but wouldn’t be keen on their own children playing the game we all love.

That’s a frightening attitude when you think about it. “It’s too late for me, but I don’t want to risk my children, that’s how dangerous this game is”.

As the NFL pushes for ever greater expansion of the game outside of the USA, one of the big areas they want to focus on is the game at the youth level. If the NFL wants to ensure there is enough local support for a London franchise one of the best ways of achieving that is by increasing the number of young people playing the game at the grass roots level.

But youth football as a concept terrifies me now given what we’re learning about the damage the cumulative effect of hits can have on the brain – even an accumulation of sub-concussive hits to the head.

I think there is a solution though. Take the pads off.

The NFL’s own ‘heads up’ campaign is a joke at best and in reality it’s freaking dangerous. I’ve raised this before but their own video promoting the safety of the ‘heads up’ tackle shows a kid’s head being jacked back as he takes a face full of helmet. If that’s the NFL looking after the next generation then we’re on our own folks, and it’s time to find another way.

For years I coached kids rugby at a school here in Ireland, and despite being a similarly violent and concussive game, there were very few head injuries when you teach kids from the beginning proper form tackling and how to play the game before you suit them up in armour, give them a false sense of invincibility, and let them throw themselves around like a wrecking ball.

00000753606-9207536-640-360000000whitescrumcap[1]Taking the pads off all youth football wouldn’t prevent the game from being played as it’s supposed to be played, but would help to teach sound fundamentals and protect kids before they get introduced at a later stage in development. All rugby players were kitted up with for years is a gum shield. In recent years more kids have been using soft scrum caps, and a layer of soft pads worn under the jersey to take the edge off the worst impacts.

0000000gilbert_synergie12_pads11I’m not trying to turn football into flag football, believe me. I’ve been talked into playing flag football a few times and hated it. It takes the game of football and removes all the fun of the contact and tackling. This isn’t like that. We’re keeping the tackling, keeping the physicality, keeping the contact, all that’s changing is that kids wouldn’t be kitted up with hard shelled pads and helmets, which in truth probably do more harm than good at this point.

There may be no way of walking the NFL or college football back from where it is in terms of protective gear, but there’s no reason that needs to extend all of the way down. When we’re talking about our kids, the most precious resource we have do we really want to expose them to potentially devastating brain trauma before they’re old enough to have a clue what that means? Take the traditional pads away and take a leaf out of the book of rugby.


Football exists in this form elsewhere already, and it’s kind of awesome:

2 thoughts on “How to save youth football

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