Elijah Earnhardt, 12, has been barred from playing with his local Pee Wee football league. in Texas because he exceeds the league’s maximum weight restriction. At 6-foot-1 and 297 pounds — 162 pounds over the 135-pound limit — the league says he is too big to play safely with other boys his age.
As childhood obesity rates continue to rise, cases such as Elijah’s likely will become increasingly common, experts say. Safety is an enormous issue when you are talking about sports, particularly a contact activity associated with head injuries.
There are other considerations, including the self-esteem of the banned child. Playing sports could also help Elijah develop habits that result in a healthier weight.
Leagues should try to find a way to balance the safety of the young players with the mental health of a child who exceeds size maximums, said Eleanor Mackey, a psychologist with the Obesity Institute at Children’s National Medical Center.
“The thing that bothers me about this is the focus is on his weight, and the fact that he’s being made to feel that he can’t be like other kids his age because of his weight, and that’s not good for a kid,” Mackey said. “You don’t want him to feel like he can’t be part of sports, because that’s a perfect way to manage your weight.
“Make him part of the team,” she said. “Find a position he can play that would be less risky for the other kids. I would hope that instead of just saying, ‘No, he can’t play,’ there would be a dialogue with this kid and his family, and they would try to do what they can to support him.”
That seems like a reasonable compromise to some. Let the kid continue to be on the team, and practice with the team. Elijah has told Dallas-Fort Worth television station KDFW Fox 4’s Web site that he wants to learn how to play football. So perhaps coaches could teach him fundamentals and allow him to participate in non-contact drills.
He will learn the game while getting some valuable physical activity. He will be on the team with his friends, participating and building his self-confidence. By keeping him out of contact situations or games, theoretically, no one’s safety is compromised.
It’s not that simple, says Mark Meana, the commissioner of the Fairfax County Youth Football League, which uses a similar age/weight grid to determine a child’s eligibility. Taking the contact out of tackle football, even in practice drills, is nearly impossible, Meana said. And if you limit a child’s role in practice or the game, it could further stigmatize him or make him even more self-conscious about his size.
“It’s like having a Volkswagen go up against a tractor-trailer truck,” Meana said. “If there’s contact involved, who’s going to win that? Convert that to your son, who is minimum size, going against someone who is much bigger. In football, size and contact are a real, real concern.” At the end of the day, he said, there are people who meet the size requirements and people who do not.
“We all want everyone to do what they can to participate,” he said. “Participation is everything . . . but you’ve got to be reasonable, and exercise due diligence, so it’s fair for as many people as you can make it. But it’s not inclusive. Everyone can’t play, and that’s a fundamental fact.”
Meana points out that tackle football is the only youth sport that allows contact. Other options open to kids who don’t meet the weight requirements for football include hockey, basketball, baseball, soccer or even flag football.
“Anyone who runs a league would say, ‘I’m a little worried about this,’ ” Meana said. “If you talk to people who sit in the stands and know nothing about football, they may sway toward the emotional side. But would you want your 50-pound kid playing against him? That’s my question.”
No one wants a child to feel left out of an activity that he’s interested in, and may benefit him. But if other children are put at greater risk of injury by allowing him to play, that’s not acceptable, either.
“It’s important for school districts and teams to start thinking about how they can manage these issues in a compassionate way,” Mackey said. “There have to be ways to include all kids in the sports they want to be in, in a healthy way, without singling them out and making them feel bad about any aspect of themselves.”
What do you think? Is there a way to allow kids of all sizes to play a contact sport without compromising the safety of the other children?