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Players line up for a play at a recent Hoffman Estates Redhawks practice as part of the Chicagoland Pop Warner association. Pop Warner rules limit full-speed contact drills to a maximum of one-third of practice time.

Local Pop Warner leagues feel effects of national football concerns

by Mitch Goldich
Nov 26, 2013


Mitch Goldich/MEDILL

Teams are split by age and weight to make sure games are as fair and as safe as possible.

Mitch Goldich/MEDILL


Kids make the passes but parents and coaches discuss health and safety at a recent Hoffman Estates Redhawks practice.


Football at all levels is under increasing scrutiny with the concussion crisis rocking the sport. The effect is being felt from the NFL all the way down to Pop Warner, America’s largest national youth football organization.

“This was the first year where we actually had many parents asking, ‘What are you guys doing [for safety]? What’s your plan for it?’” said Chicagoland Pop Warner president Mark Mueller. “Before, nobody asked those questions.”

ESPN reported recently that participation numbers in Pop Warner dropped nearly 10 percent between 2010 and 2012, “thought to be the largest two-year decline since the organization began keeping statistics decades ago."

Pop Warner structures itself into various associations, each representing their own town and managed by local coaches and administrators. The associations field teams at different playing levels, separated by age and weight. Neither Mueller nor the national Pop Warner office were able to produce specific data regarding the number of associations, teams and players in the Chicagoland region over the past few years.

But anecdotally, Mueller said, “Several of our towns have expressed that they were down at least one team per association due to injury fear with parents.”

Youth team sports face national declines

Many people immediately assumed that the concussion craze is the leading reason for the decline. Jon Butler, who has spent 22 years as the executive director of Pop Warner’s national office in Langhorne, Penn., acknowledged the safety aspect is one factor in the trend. But he points to other reasons as well.

“First of all, overall participation in youth sports in the U.S. is down,” Butler said. He said that with the exception, perhaps, of lacrosse, ”Every other sport that I know of is down.”

“Part of that,” Butler explained, “is that there is increasing pressure on parents and kids to specialize in one sport— which is medically ill-advised and probably psychologically too. We hear these horror stories, ‘If the child doesn’t play year-round starting at 8 or 9, they’ll never get a scholarship.’”

Mueller believes the drop off in football players is most prevalent at the younger levels, with many parents waiting an extra year or two before allowing their kids to play.

Butler thinks the national numbers may be trending the other way. “We’ve seen an increase in the lower age levels, and a decrease at the upper end,” Butler said.

Kids choosing to specialize in one sport is not the only reason. Part of it is physical. “It starts to look like quote unquote ‘real football’ at that age,” Butler said of the older levels. “Kids are bigger, stronger faster. They had fun for a few years, but now think ‘This is serious, I don’t feel like doing that.’”

Making changes to tackle the issue

Pop Warner is working to improve the safety of its players, Butler said. He noted two newly-implemented rules that help reduce both the frequency and impact of head-on collisions. First, scrimmaging or other full-speed contact must be limited to no more than one-third of practice time. Second, teams are not allowed to run any drill in which they engage in full-speed, head-on collisions with players starting more than three yards apart.

Pop Warner has also partnered with the NFL. In past years, head coaches and at least one assistant coach had to complete a training program. Starting in 2014, every coach will have to complete USA Football's Heads Up training program.

“It’s a very well-done program,” Butler said. “And it makes all the sense in the world for us to be partnered with the NFL.”

Pop Warner works to educate players and coaches about safety issues, but new research is done every day and the organization is very large. Even with recent declines, Pop Warner includes more than 200,000 players across America, who pay to participate.

In order for new research on topics such as brain injuries and equipment technology to truly make an impact, understanding the information and disseminating it to every level of football are both critical steps.

Take helmets for example.

On one hand, Mueller said that tackle football is safer than flag football because of pads and helmets.

“Tackle football is actually safer in my opinion for the younger levels because kids are padded,” Mueller said. “Flag football, these kids are banging heads around... So when they’re playing tackle football, then at least you know that their heads are protected with helmets.”

But, on the other hand, many top researchers believe that because concussions are caused by collisions inside the skull, no helmet can prevent them. The helmet becomes a weapon that actually causes more concussions.

Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru’s recent groundbreaking book League of Denial, which chronicles the history of how the NFL dealt with the concussion crisis, spends pages explaining how the efforts to combat concussions with a “superhelmet” was one of the league’s most futile missteps. In October the NFL discontinued its deal to make Riddell the league’s official helmet provider, preferring not to endorse any particular helmet brand.

For even well-intentioned parents, relying on misinformation about health issues could prove just as dangerous as disregarding the research altogether.

Preparing for the big games

At a recent Hoffman Redhawks practice, many parents praised the coaching staff as a whole and Mueller in particular for creating a safe environment, teaching proper tackling technique and stressing to students that schoolwork is a greater priority than football. But none of these positive steps change the fact that football is an inherently dangerous game and that many experts believe children’s brains are particularly susceptible to head trauma.

Hoffman is in the midst of a historically successful season. Three different teams from the same town in Illinois have all advanced to the Mid America Regional Championships, one win from the national championship game, the Pop Warner Super Bowl.

At next week’s national semifinals, winning will likely be the first thing on most people’s mind. But the safety issue also casts a specter over football games on every field, whether the uniforms say Hoffman Redhawks or Chicago Bears.