Like many others who depend on football as a major source of their livelihood, I’m continually in tune with the conversation surrounding it. For much of the last decade, the mainstream conversation has centered on the sport’s safety. It’s not difficult to find articles, interviews, news reports, studies, and other commentary on this. It’s become clear that the sport needs to undergo some changes—from a kid’s first introduction to the game through the careers of those who play professionally. Many of these changes are already underway. The NFL announced rule changes just this week while collegiate, high school, and youth associations also continue to evaluate and adjust. But one message I have for those who want to see football come to an end or those who are fearful that it might— football is going nowhere.
A portion of our society embraces other potentially dangerous and contact-based sports like boxing, mixed martial arts, bull riding, hockey, and rugby. Even soccer, horseback riding, cheerleading, and lacrosse—activities you may not immediately think of as precarious— rank among or above football on lists of risky sports. Americans are allowed to smoke, drink, skydive, scuba dive, and willingly engage in other activities that could be harmful to one’s health and well-being. So, I’m not worried that anyone is going to take football away from us (besides, there’s too much money involved).
The game is certainly going to have to make modifications though in order to remain on its perch as the most popular sport in America. There is a wide-ranging set of things to be considered in this effort, but I want to touch on one recently in the news: state lawmakers across the country considering bills to ban tackle football for younger players.
I wasn’t initially sure how I felt about this. I’ve long been a proponent of non-padded (flag) football participation until at least 5th grade, and even then, having quality non-padded options available for those who are not yet ready for full-contact football in 5th-6th grade. However, I’m not interested in having government suits make this decision on behalf of the football community. I’d rather see football people, in council with medical professionals, come to a unified voice in making this decision.
But I’m uncertain if the football community as a whole would embrace a change like this. I’ve spoke to hundreds of high school coaches, youth coaches/organizers, and parents who have strong and differing opinions on when kids should begin tackle football. The youth football environment allows these decision makers to setup leagues and access teams that participate in whatever setup they desire. I’ve encountered high school coaches who prefer that the youth in their system play flag non-contact football through 6th grade but are hesitant to speak out for fear of alienating parents of kids soon to be in their program. So they stay out of the conversation altogether, and this is troubling because I believe that high school coaches are the most qualified football people to give insight on this debate.
In addition to coaches, organizers, and parents who have differing opinions on the subject, the financial components of the industry would also have an impact. Do you think helmet and shoulder pad manufacturers want to see a ban on youth tackle football? I would be inclined to think they would have a strong influence on the conversation though, along with others who have deep pockets and a vested interest in seeing tackle football remain untouched.
I’m left wondering if we really do need lawmakers to pass a bill banning tackle football at younger playing ages. That may be our only option to force a change that is truly impactful in determining how kids experience football. And I think if this were to happen, the trend of declining participation in football would be reversed.
The Taking Back Football blog provides insight and commentary from Tyler Blum, a former University of Iowa player and now full-time youth football organizer. The blog focuses on discussion surrounding the sport, specifically at the youth and high school levels. Based on nearly a decade of professional experience in this field and interactions with coaches and parents across the state of Iowa, Coach Blum aims to serve the youth football community by delivering an experienced and qualified take on topics that organizers, coaches, and parents encounter in this realm.