The NY Post reports that youth football has taken a hit in New York City.
The violent nature of the sport, and the widespread awareness of the danger of concussions, is causing more parents to keep their kids on the sidelines.
Across the five boroughs, the numbers of kids participating in tackle football is in decline because of the fear of concussions, several coaches and league presidents say.
“It’s not necessarily concussions as in parents seeing their kids get concussions, but concussion awareness that has scared some people off,” said Edmond Wilson, the president of Empire Youth Football, a citywide organization for kids between the ages of 6 and 14. “I have had kids who played before, and their parents don’t want them to be tackled. They are afraid of concussions.”
Courtney Pollins, the commissioner of Big Apple Football, which offers tackle football for kids from ages 6 to 14, said his numbers have dropped dramatically, from 3,500 last year to 2,800 this year. Wilson reported the same percentage of decline, of 300 kids, from 1,500 to 1,200. The Queens Falcons and Brooklyn Renegades, two other notable youth-football programs in the city, have also seen a drop-off this year.
The city’s two other major youth football leagues say they have gained players.
Adam Howard, who runs the Brooklyn United youth football program, said his teams are playing half as many games because there are fewer teams to schedule, and Pollins said the roster numbers are significantly lower.
Many of the youth coaches used the phrase “fear mongering” to describe the situation. Parents have watched the nasty collisions in the NFL and have seen the movie “Concussion,” about a forensic pathologist’s fight against the NFL over suppressing his research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) brain degeneration suffered by players.
“Because football is in the place it is in this society, it has taken a lot of hits, no pun intended,” said Bill Solomon, a coach with the Brooklyn Titans of the Empire State Youth Football. “It is so demonstrably physical and you have the NFL, where you have these issues, it gets more scrutiny. It doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily right. For every one [kid] who gets a concussion, I got 10 or 15 or 20 kids who finished high school and are on to college when they otherwise would not have been.”
Nigel James Jr. started playing football at the age of 5. Three years later, he was one of the best players on his team, the Huntington Bulldogs on Long Island.
At practice one Thursday night, the then-8-year-old took a hit to the head. He suffered from a headache that night but felt fine otherwise. That weekend, he suited up for a game and took another head-to-head hit. This time, he was woozy, couldn’t walk straight, and was diagnosed with a concussion. He suffered from severe headaches for three weeks, was throwing up for several days and was dealing with nausea.
“That was the end of the sport,” his father, Nigel James Sr., said.
The younger James, now 10, was shaken up, unable to be active for a month. A year later, he asked his dad if he could play football again, but the answer was no.
“I realized it’s way too dangerous. I felt like I put him out there to get hurt. I was kind of the cause,” the father recalled. “It took a lot out of him. I felt helpless. Seeing him crying, throwing up, looking to me as his dad, I couldn’t do anything to help him.”
AnnMarie Selle heard the risks of tackle football and how much safer other sports were, but she liked the idea of helmets and pads. An older son of hers suffered a major head injury riding a Jet Ski.
She has two sons, 10-year-old Christopher and 7-year-old James, playing with the Queens Falcons of the New York City Youth Football League, and neither has had an issue. Christopher has been in the league for three years, and the Queens Falcons teach their players to lead with their shoulders and their heads to the outside, like many other organizations.
“I see so many people that I know that are playing soccer and basketball and they get injured on the court or on the field,” she said.
Abdu-Allah Torrence is a varsity basketball coach at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Harlem, and his son also asked him to play youth football for several years. Finally, he relented last year.
Torrence was nervous when he first watched 9-year-old Ahmad play, but he was relieved after seeing the proper technique the players are taught. This year, his son’s team, the New Rochelle Huguenots Elite of American Youth Football, did a concussion workshop with representatives from USA Football, the youth-development arm of the NFL, which included parents, kids and coaches.
The clinic worked on proper technique, how to tackle without sustaining injury, and how to absorb a hit. The Huguenots practice twice a week, using contact only once.
The NFL began a “Heads Up Football” initiative in 2012 to better educate people involved at the youth level to make football safer for children.
Still, Torrence doesn’t expect his son to play high-school football.
“I’m not comfortable with that, long-term,” he said. “It’s a whole different animal [at that level].”
That opinion is one of the reasons high-school programs in the city and the surrounding areas have also seen a dip in participation.
Catholic High School Football League President Chris Hardardt confirmed that the number of kids playing in his league is down, although he didn’t have exact figures.
He is seeing more roster sizes in the low 40s or high 30s, compared with previous rosters in the 50s. Only 12 of the 23 programs now carry true freshman teams, down from 15 in the last year, according to the league’s vice president, Tom Pugh.
The PSAL, one of the largest high-school sports organizations in the country, has seen only a slight dip in its number of active varsity players, from 1,903 to 1,865 this fall. Even so, its coaches understand the effect the concussion debate has had on the sport and want parents and players to become more educated about it.
“There is a hard hit in practice and I’ll even hear the kids say, ‘Oh there’s a concussion right there,’ ” Lincoln HS coach Shawn O’Connor said. “They are just throwing those words around.”
What coaches would also like publicized are the athletes who learn valuable life lessons, earn college scholarships or even make it to the NFL. New York City has recently produced NFL players like Ishaq Williams (New York Giants), Devon Cajuste (Green Bay Packers), Dominique Easley (LA Rams) and Dean Marlowe (Carolina Panthers).
It is that dream that keeps players like Christ the King senior running back Siddiq Muhammad competing, despite the dangers. “There’s a risk and that that play might be your last play,” said Muhammed, who has 11 Division I scholarship offers. “As I grow up, I realized it was a sacrifice that had to be made. My parents are financially struggling so football is my way out.”
According to two doctors specializing in brain injuries, parents shouldn’t necessarily prohibit their children from playing football, but if they allow it, they must understand the risks and make sure their kids are properly trained.
“I am not someone who is [saying] no football at all, as long as they are taught the proper method of how to tackle and how to play,” said Dr. Melissa Leber, the director of Emergency Department Sports Medicine at Mount Sinai-St. Luke’s Hospital and Mount Sinai-Roosevelt Hospital.
Another issue, raised by Dr. R. Dawn Comstock, is that kids may take longer to recover from concussions because their brains are still growing.
Leber said that more concussions are reported now simply because of the heightened awareness, not necessarily because more are occurring.
“We should try to prevent concussions, but we should not let the fear of concussions or any sports-related injuries drive kids out of playing sports,” said Comstock, associate professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health.