“All this awareness is making people believe concussions are more common than they really are,” he said. “There’s an apprehension among parents to put their kids out there because they don’t want them hurt. . . . People are saying, ‘Oh, my goodness, I didn’t know this was going on. My kid’s not playing.’ We’ve created this cloud over football where it looks more dangerous than it actually is.”
In more than a quarter-century of coaching, Wilson, 50, has seen youth football grow into a complex entity with a lot of moving parts. Rockville’s youth league is run by a board of directors with a large network of volunteers. Its coaches need to obtain seven types of certifications before they can blow a whistle. This fall, for the first time, every parent had to complete a mandatory online course in concussion awareness. And any player showing signs of a concussion can’t return to practice without a doctor’s note.
Robert Cantu, one of the leading experts in traumatic brain injury, says that safety steps and increased awareness is not enough.
Cantu, the co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of Medicine, would like to see tackle football banned for athletes under the age of 14. In addition, he calls for no heading in soccer and no full-body checking in ice hockey at the same age.
“We’re not calling for sports to not be played, but to be played with those restrictions,” he said. “In the case of tackle football, substitute flag for tackle.”
A young person’s head, Cantu said, is too vulnerable and no modernized helmet or altered playing rules can fully prevent concussions.
“The youth brain housed in disproportionately big head on a very weak neck, it’s a bobblehead doll-effect that increases the injury,” said Cantu, who co-authored the recent book, “Concussions and Our Kids.”
Changing the culture
In Centreville a couple weeks ago, officials with the Fairfax County Youth Football League and USA Football walked Goodell through the drills of the “Heads-Up Football” initiative, a program co-sponsored by the NFL and USA Football that emphasizes safer tackling techniques, concussion awareness and proper equipment. The pilot program is in only three cities now – Centreville, Santa Monica, Calif., and Noblesville, Ind. — but the NFL hopes it will soon be adopted by many more.
When the commissioner was finished watching the players, he headed toward the bleachers where parents were armed with questions.
Goodell knows the challenges facing youth football – safety concerns and increased interest in other sports, he says, but also the weak economy and the costs associated with football. He urged the parents to ask him anything.
A father wondered how long until the safe tackling program impacts the NFL. “Most of the time, changes in techniques happen from the top down,” Goodell said. “In this case, we believe implementing these techniques and learning these fundamentals at this age are going to help these kids all the way through.”
To a mother whose 11-year-old son suffered a concussion the week before: “If any of your children are hurt, whether it’s your leg or your head, make sure they’re not afraid to raise their hand. That’s all, and say, ‘I don’t feel right.’ ”
And to a mother whose son seeks out videos of vicious hits on YouTube: “We are not promoting the kinds of hits that were promoted even five years ago, 10 years ago. We’re trying to get our partners not to promote those. . . . We have worked very hard to make them understand, ‘We are trying to change our culture and you need to be a part of that. You need to make sure you’re not glorifying the kinds of hits we’re trying to eliminate from our game.’ ”
Goodell was well received. In the bleachers, Raquel Garfield, listened intently. She has two sons playing in the Fairfax league and another playing freshman ball at Centreville High. One of her sons had suffered two concussions in elementary school — one on the playground, the other on a scooter — and her pediatrician discouraged him from playing football. Her instincts were buoyed by what she heard.
“Accidents are going to happen,” she said. “I’d rather have them doing this than sitting at home on the couch. You can waste your brain sitting on the couch and you can do damage to your character.”