Around 3 million Americans kids ages 7 through 14 participate in football leagues, and an additional 1.1 million high school students play the game as well, according to USA Football, the national governing body for the sport on the amateur level.
Given the risks involved with playing a contact sport at a young age, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has issued a set of recommendations, released in the journal Pediatrics, to tackle potential safety issued faced by kids on the field.
For starters, the AAP advises that both referees and coaches enforce a zero-tolerance policy for illegal, head-first hits. These are the kinds of tackles that are most likely to result in head, neck or other injuries.
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The organization also recommends that athletic trainers be made available on the sidelines during play as a means of reducing player injuries.
A study presented last week at the AAP's national conference in Washington, D.C., found that coaches and parents are lacking information on concussions, which could be detrimental to player safety.
In a survey of over 500 coaches and parents, more than 40 percent of coaches and 50 percent of parents said they would feel fine sending a player back into a game before a doctor cleared the athlete to do so, a move that directly contradicts medical guidelines following a blow to the head. This is a concern not just for football but youth sports in general.
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The AAP further advises the expansion on non-tackling leagues to give players a chance to play the game without facing the injury risk.
This isn't to say that the AAP statement is entirely against tackle football, as learning to tackle early can reduce injuries as players grow into the game. "It's this paradox," pediatrician Greg Landry said in a statement, "that makes it so important for leagues to teach proper tackling technique and skills to avoid and absorb tackles, even if no tackling occurs throughout the seasons."
A separate study released this week at the AAP conference found that limiting full-contact tackling during practice can significant reduce the number of concussions suffered by players. In Wiscosin, the state's interscholastic athletic association mandated limits on full-contact practice drills or scrimmages. The move cut the number of sports-related concussions in half in 2014 compared with the two previous seasons.
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Injuries in youth sports have come under increasing attention following coverage of brain trauma in NFL players that resulted in several suicides and premature deaths, often as a result of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). In 2012, Junior Seau, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year, committed suicide, bringing CTE under national scrutiny.
Following Seau's death, researchers have found that the brain damage shown in older professional athletes had their roots in their amateur careers.
One study published in the run-up to last year's Super Bowl, for example, determined that former NFL players who played tackle football before age 12 were at increased risk of memory and cognitive problems later in life. A separate study released last year concluded that some high school football players showed measurable changes in their brains after only a single season, even without suffering a concussion.
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These sorts of findings are exactly what is increasingly turning parents and players off to the game, though many still choose to participate. Ultimately it's up to parents and of course the athletes themselves to weigh the potential health risks, both immediate and long term, with the social and recreational benefits of stepping onto the field.