Goodell’s mere presence at a youth league practice in suburban Virginia underscores the full scope of the NFL’s concern about the future of the sport in the wake of the concussion scare and a series of incidents that have portrayed football in an ugly, violent light. Not only has the NFL had to change its own rules and more firmly police its players, but Goodell now feels compelled to address the issue of player safety at the grass-roots level.
“It’s important to teach the right fundamentals at the earliest ages,” Goodell said, standing near midfield on the Centreville turf. “That stays with them throughout their careers, whether it ends in the NFL or whether it ends in college or high school. It’s important for what we do on the NFL level to do it right, to have the proper techniques.”
As concussion awareness and football player safety have become buzz topics at the professional level, the impact is being felt at the youth levels, where the risks have become too perilous for many, participation numbers are shrinking in many parts of the country and most leagues are ramping up precautionary measures.
While USA Football, the sport’s national governing body, estimates 3 million children participate in youth football across the country, at least one study, conducted by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, a Silver Spring-based trade association, found an 11 percent decline in tackle football’s “core” participation the past three years.
On a local level, from the Virginia and Maryland suburbs to football-crazed communities across Texas and California, youth football is trying to regain its footing.
While he’s been addressing rules and concussion protocols in the NFL the past two years, Goodell said the challenge is bigger: The culture surrounding the sport must change.
“It doesn’t happen overnight,” he said. “You have to make changes and there are things that we have to do and stress over a period of time. . . . It’s about changing the way people approach the game.”
A tour of the youth football leagues in the Washington area shows some justification for the commissioner’sconcern.
The Lower Loudoun Boys Football League, which plays in the one of fastest-growing counties in the nation, is down at least 100 players and has eliminated five teams. In Fairfax, the youth league has seen a nearly 10 percent drop in registration figures, falling from 6,700 players in 2010 to 6,034 this fall. The biggest decreases are among entry-level teams that feature younger players; the “anklebiters,” 75-pound and 85-pound weight classes, have lost a total of 35 teams in three years.