Young football players can learn how to limit injuries

Taking to football at perhaps too early an age is Tate Olsen, the 1-year-old son of Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen. CHUCK BURTON / Associated Press
Taking to football at perhaps too early an age is Tate Olsen, the 1-year-old son of Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen. CHUCK BURTON / Associated Press
Posted: June 24, 2012

As the nation's largest youth football organization, Pop Warner's decision to limit pregame contact to ward off head injuries that might haunt its players over a lifetime could be a game-changer.

For the 285,000 children, ages 5 to 15, who play in Pop Warner leagues, practicing largely without full-speed blocking and tackling will help safeguard young athletes who researchers say are more susceptible to injury. While restrictions on when an injured player may return to the field of play are being promulgated for many high school football players, it's particularly important to protect younger players from a first concussion that puts them at greater risk of repeated and more serious brain trauma.

In addition to sparing players some injuries, Pop Warner will be grooming a new generation that's more aware of the risks from a game that, after all, is a contact sport.

That's a healthy step toward changing the culture in football and other rough sports with injured players who try to tough it out — or coaches who offer the proverbial advice to "shake it off."

Pop Warner players and other youngsters, of course, will continue to look to the pros as role models. What they see at the National Football League level, though, is a league struggling to face the long-term dangers from hard hits.

To its credit, the NFL is schooling players better in how to avoid concussions, as well as putting in place medical restrictions on returning injured players to the field. And its crackdown on the New Orleans Saints for a hard-hit bounty program sent the right message about dirty play.

Yet, NFL officials still dispute the obvious link between repeated concussions and the dementia and other debilitating problems encountered by so many former players. In a recent interview, for example, the Eagles' departing president, Joe Banner, said the jury is still out.

The NFL's own 2009 study, though, found that aging players were five times more likely to have dementia or other serious memory problems. Younger retirees were just as likely to test abnormal in cognitive abilities.

The loudest drumbeat for reform comes from former NFL stars. More than 2,000 retirees have filed dozens of lawsuits alleging debilitating brain woes caused by the league's failure to warn of the dangers of repeated concussions. But whether or not the players prove their claim, it's encouraging that the word about head-injury risks on the gridiron is spreading far beyond the NFL.

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