The national governing body for amateur football, USA Football, recently announced its intention to test a drastically altered youth football game as a result of declining participation and the belief among the public that the game is not safe for children to play.
The new format mirrors more closely the game of flag football with the goal of avoiding much of the violence in the current version. Some of the rule changes are as follows:
- Smaller playing field, which will measure 40 yards-by-35 yards, and require teams to drive length of the field on a fresh possession
- Seven players on the field for each team
- No special teams
- Mandated position rotations
- Coaches will be required to ensure players of equal size will be lined up against each other
- Two coaches to be allowed on the field to organize plays and guide players
- Kickoffs and punts will be eliminated
- Players will start each play in a crouching position instead of in a three-point stance.
“The issue is participation has dropped, and there’s concern among parents about when it is the right age to start playing tackle, if at all,” said Mark Murphy, the president of the Green Bay Packers and a board member at USA Football. “…They can look at this and say they’ll be more comfortable that it is a safer alternative.”
“This is the future of the game,” notes Scott Hallenbeck, the executive director of USA Football. “All of this is about how do we do a better job, and a smarter job around the development of athletes and coaches in the game of football.”
According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, participation in tackle football by boys ages 6 to 12 has fallen by nearly 20% since 2009, though it rose 1.2%, to 1.23 million, in 2015. In fact, schools in several states — including in Maine, Missouri and New Jersey — have shut their tackle football programs because of safety concerns and a shortage of players.
Concerns over the future of youth football have been increasing over the last several years as evidence of long-term cognitive dangers of playing the game grows. Neurologists have found a degenerative brain disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, in a number of former football players, and in 2016 the NFL’s top health and safety officer acknowledged for the first time the link between the disease and brain trauma sustained on the field. In addition, several studies have shown that college and professional players who began playing tackle football as young boys have a greater risk of developing memory and thought-processing problems later in life than athletes who took up the game after they turned 12.
According to an article in CNN.com, USA Football began exploring new ways to play the game in 2015. The new format, called modified tackle, is a way to give nervous parents an alternative. Coaches would also rotate players in different positions during games to give everyone a chance to carry the ball and avoid mismatches between large and small kids.
USA Football, CNN says, is hoping that a few teams and leagues in different parts of the country test the game more formally this year. A national rollout of the game is several years down the road.
Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football organization, has also put in place rules to limit full-contact practices and taken other steps in recent years in an attempt to limit the risk of repeated head impacts.
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Sources: CNN, NY Times, USA Today