football, youth, giants

The Decline of Youth Football

Editor’s note: This semester, Scroll will be showcasing interesting and quality student writing from around campus. These usually come in the form of essays, which will be published in print and on our website. The opinions expressed in these pieces do not necessarily represent the views of Scroll staff members or of BYU-Idaho.

Story by Tanner Holt

Native Texan and long time fan of the Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys, Shane Alexander has been a passionate football fan ever since he can remember. After long Sunday mornings of preaching at his local church in Mexia, Texas, he comes home, plops down on the couch and begins to watch NFL games. Even though his affection for football runs deep, he has no plans to let his sons play the game, a game that has seen a record 10 percent decline in youth participants since 2009, said ESPN writer Mark Fainaru-Wada. The general public tends to attribute this record decline to video games or the expensive cost to play, but there is an even greater cause that correlates perfectly with this 2009 decline. The 35-year-old father of two boys fears that the health of his sons will be in jeopardy if he allows them to play the violent game.“Concussions are particularly scary because the effect isn’t immediately obvious and could evolve into permanent brain damage,” Alexander said.

Alexander is not alone on this issue. Fifty-seven percent of 1,000 surveyed parents said that due to the recent stories about the NFL concussion crisis, they are much less likely to allow their children to play in youth football leagues, according to a 2012 study by ESPN Research and the Global Strategy Group (Lavigne). These parents’ decision to keep their children away from the game has derived from the recent NFL concussion crisis that began around 2009. Over the past few years, the NFL has released in-depth studies about the damages caused by concussions, something the world-renowned league had never before done to this extent. In September 2015, a study done for the NFL by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University identified 87 of 91 deceased NFL players who had tested positive for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease caused by repetitive head trauma (Breslow). Studies like these and many more have caused an uproar from thousands of ex-NFL players who are suing the league, accusing the league of not warning the players and hiding the damages of brain injury. The media have run wild over this concussion crisis, making these statistics public and publishing stories about memory loss, depression and suicide due to the traumatic blows. This has caused fear among parents throughout America who now battle with the question: Do I let my kids play youth football or not?

football, sports

The NFL concussion crisis has struck parents with fear, therefore leading them to pull their kids out of football in search for other sports and activities. Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football program, lost 23,612 players from 2010 to 2012, which was the greatest two-year decline since the organization began in 1929. Pop Warner officials are aware that several factors could have led to the decline, but the organization’s chief medical officer, Dr. Julian Bailes, attributes head injuries and the NFL concussion buzz as “the No. 1 cause” (Mark Fainaru-Wada). Uncoincidentally, this decline in youth football was around the same time when the media coverage of the NFL concussion crisis was starting to come to the forefront of one’s TV, computer and phone screens. An NFL-funded study was released stating that NFL players were 19 times more likely to suffer from dementia, memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease. In October 2009, members of Congress grilled NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for the league’s handling of health issues and even “compared the NFL to the tobacco industry” (Hobson). The biggest media outlets soon began to cover this sticky situation, and the NFL suddenly found itself under the microscope of scrutiny. Unfortunately, this situation did not just affect the NFL, its players, ex-players and their families. In fact, its greatest effect was on the millions of Americans who watched this dilemma unravel. Parents were suddenly starting to be informed on the possible long-term consequences of these traumatic brain injuries. In 2015, a study from Boston University showed that ex-NFL players who played tackle football in their youth were more likely to have thinking and memory problems as adults (Farrey). Startling studies have had, and continue to have, a major impact on the conscious of parents as they decide whether their child should play. As more information and studies are revealed about the consequences of concussions, parents’ fear throughout America will also rise, increasing the decline in youth football.

Recent stories about ex-NFL players who have committed suicide have also brought fear upon parents, ultimately contributing to the decline in youth football in America. The emotional ramifications of concussions worried parents when 2012 Hall of Fame NFL linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide in his home only two years after his retirement. This story blew up nationwide. Elizabeth Giancarli, already uneasy about letting her 7-year-old son play tackle football, decided against the idea once Seau committed suicide.

“I think that the Junior Seau suicide really hit home,” Giancarli said about the incident. “So we decided to put him in another year of flag because the impact is significantly less.”

Giancarli still has not ruled out the idea of letting her son play when he is older, but she wishes that he had no desire to play. This was something tough to say coming from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers season ticket holder Giancarli. She explained how she would hate to take the experience away from her son but “just [doesn’t] know if it’s worth it,” (Jenkin

football, youth, giants

s). Many parents became concerned with the emotional toll that concussions caused once they heard about Seau. How could such a fun-loving father of four who was admired and loved by people nationwide suddenly turn suicidal? Seau, even though never officially diagnosed with a concussion in his career due to the lack of diagnoses given during this time, knew what he was suffering. He sent a message to all of us by shooting himself in the chest, rather than his head so his brain could be preserved for studying purposes. 

Only weeks after his death, doctors concluded that Seau had suffered from CTE. ABC interviewed Seau’s son, Tyler, where he said that during the final years of his father’s life he noticed “mood swings, depression, forgetfulness, insomnia and detachment,” all which are possible effects from CTE (Mark Fainaru-Wada). Due to heavy media coverage, millions of Americans were exposed to the Seau’s story. The emotional effects from CTE, such as depression and detachment from friends and family, were now startling parents even more than the physical effects like memory loss. Parents were now forced to take into consideration that their children might not only receive physical damage from a concussion but emotional damage as well.

Some have said that the NFL concussion crisis is not the leading cause of the decline of youth sports in America. The most popular argument against this decline in youth football is that video games are pulling kids away from playing sports. John O’Sullivan, a writer for the website “Changing the Game Project,” claims that “We are losing 3 out 4 young athletes by the age of 13” and that the majority of them “turn to video games” instead. Even though many kids choose video games over sports, it is not the leading cause of this most recent decline in youth sports. The reasoning is that video games have been more or less relevant since 2001 when the first Xbox was released. Video games have been around for decades, and the more relevant video games that kids play today such as the Xbox, PlayStation and Wii have been around for roughly the past 15 years. This recent decline of youth sports began in 2009, so the periods clearly do not match up. If the main reason for the decline of youth sports were video games, wouldn’t that decline have happened more than 10 years ago?

football, helmet, sports

Another argument people make is that the cost of youth football has become extremely expensive. The cost to play youth football “usually ranges from $75 to $200” depending on the program due to demographics, according to Pop Warner’s official Web page. As an ex-football player myself, I am willing to say that number should be higher due to the amount of gear the team provides, which does not include cleats and gloves, expensive equipment that most players tend to wear. This argument is invalid because youth football has always been an expensive sport. There is no correlation between the decline of youth football participants that begun in 2009 and how expensive youth football is. The National Bureau of Economic Research stated that the United States recession beginning in late 2007 had officially ended by mid 2009 (Members of the Business Cycle Dating Committe). Even though many were hurt financially due to the recession, the road to financial recovery began in 2009 while the decline of youth football continued.

“Losing your head in a crisis is a good way to become part of the crisis,” said C.J. Redwine. Amidst the controversy of this head-traumatizing crisis, are we not essentially “losing our head[s]” and becoming “part of the crisis” due to fear that has settled in us? “Fear cuts deeper than swords,” said George R.R. Martin. The fear that has been instilled into the American people due to the NFL concussion crisis has cut deep. Football fans nation wide have known for years that football is an extremely violent sport, but the knowledge and information we have gained about concussions within the past few years has caused great fear for the American people. A fear cutting so deep it is essentially changing childhoods across America. As parents and future parents, the choice is ours as Americans, we can continue letting fear cut deeper and deeper or we can walk amongst the brave, doing our best to dissolve this fear-led crisis.

Works Cited

Breslow, Jason M. PBS Frontline. 9 2015.

Farrey, Tom. ESPN. 29 January 2015.

Hobson, Will. The Washington Post. 15 8 2015.

Jenkins, Chris. Huffington Post. May 2012.

Lavigne, Paula. ESPN. 26 8 2012. 2015.

Mark Fainaru-Wada, Jim Avila, Steve Fainaru. ESPN. 13 1 2013. ABC News. 2015.

Members of the Business Cycle Dating Committe. The National Bureau of Economic Research. September 2010.

O’Sullivan, John. Changing the Game Project. 2015. 2015.

'The Decline of Youth Football' have 5 comments

  1. January 14, 2016 @ 11:39 am Lauren Conte

    This was very well written. It also makes me think of the new Will Smith movie about concussions, so I like how relevant it was! Personally, I’m not sure if I would let my future sons play football. For me, I think that risk outweighs the reward. There are other sports like soccer or basketball that aren’t as physical and that seem “safer”. Anyways, I loved how thought provoking this was!!


  2. January 14, 2016 @ 2:14 pm Ciara

    I thought this was a really interesting article. It’s no secret that football can be a very dangerous sport, but you don’t realize all the risks. It made me think about if I would let me kids play football and the problems that could come with it. I also thought it was really interesting that it was compared to the tobacco industry.


  3. January 14, 2016 @ 3:13 pm Paul

    It’s very sad to see a decline in children playing a contact sport. A well managed outlet for physical contact allows children to experience action, bravery, fear, exhilaration etc without having to resort to less savoury activities to achieve the same.

    Perhaps they should be looking a the two major codes of rugby, rugby union (played across the United States) and rugby league (played mostly in Australasia and parts of Europe), for ideas regarding tackling technique. They don’t wear helmets in these sports and children are taught from a very young age how to tackle while protecting the head. Mishaps still happen but it is nowhere near the scale that is found in football.


  4. January 14, 2016 @ 3:27 pm Adam Jackson

    I myself played football for years growing up. I also chose to leave it behind. But it wasn’t because I wanted to play more video games, or because I was concerned for my health, it was the people. I was tired of jocks, vulgarity and playing politics to make captain. Now, I’m not trying to say that any of what I just said is the real reason people are leaving the sport, but I am trying to say there can be a plethora of reasons as to why there is a decline in the sport. Things change, interests rise and fall. If football dies out. That’s how it goes. Something new will take its place.


  5. January 14, 2016 @ 3:39 pm Seth Craven

    My parents never let me play football for all the same medical reasons. As a child I didn’t really understand why I couldn’t play with my friends but now I’m glad they protected me. Research has supported the danger and risk involved with playing and it’s interesting to hear about that decline.


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