Some people are suggesting it would be safer for kids to wait to play football until they enter the ninth grade. While the naysayers have a number of reasons for coming to this conclusion, these points are easily refuted when you look at the equation logically and review actual data.
I recently was part of a panel of former NFL coaches, players, Physicians and trainers that critiqued the youth football reality show Friday Night Tykes. Clinton Portis felt that kids shouldn’t play until the ninth grade because he didn’t play until he got into High School. He felt that his playing sandlot football “taught me fundamentals and my own kids will have enough natural athletic ability, that they won’t need to play youth football to be successful in High School.”
While Clinton Portis or his children may possess enough natural athleticism and ability that they can play the game safely and successfully as a freshman in High School, most High School ninth graders aren’t as blessed. Portis made the Varsity as a Freshman in High School and ran a 10.6 100 Meters, that isn’t your average High School player. If you take an average or even less High School ninth grader who has little to no football training and put him in against kids who are much bigger and much more athletic, significantly high injury rates are going to occur.
Just think about this: in College and the NFL the players are playing against other players who all have from 8-20 years of playing experience. Imagine what the injury rates would look like for them if those veterans played against someone who was playing for the first time? Also consider that the NFL and College teams don’t have ultra gross mismatches, why? Because all of the smaller, less athletic weaker players get weeded out, they DON’T PLAY COLLEGE OR NFL FOOTBALL. A weak or average rookie ninth grader playing for the very first time probably isn’t even going to play varsity for his High School, let alone make it to College or the NFL. So the NFL and College players are playing on a much more level playing field. That ISN’T the case in High School football, IF all the kids were to wait until the ninth grade to play for the very first time.
You also need to take into consideration how poorly staffed most High School Freshman teams are. One local team I know of had 73 kids on one team and had just 2 coaches. Several High Schools I know of in Florida have eliminated Freshman football teams altogether. So if you don’t make Varsity or JV as a Freshman, your first year of playing would be as a Sophomore. Another team I know of had so few players that all the Freshman were put on the Varsity team, yep not having those kids play until the ninth grade would really protect those kids.
If everyone waited until ninth grade to play the High Schools would have a wide mix of the very big and very athletic playing against rookie kids who may be very weak and unathletic and with little to no playing skills. The injury rates at that level would be mindboggling. Youth players who have come up through the ranks already know how to play safely and when they were just learning, they weren’t playing against post pubescent 200 lb athletes. The youth players start playing at an age level where injuries are rare and usually not serious. Does anyone really think it would be safer to have someone learn those skills for the very first time when they are much older, where the risk for injury is without a doubt much higher?
On the panel I was on, Clinton Portis suggested it was somehow safer playing sandlot games until 8th grade rather than playing on an organized team. I find that to be preposterous, that a self-taught player, playing in a game with no coach or trainer nearby, with just the player doing his OWN health assessment as a 9 or 10 year old would be safer than playing organized football. Portis suggested he learned all his base “fundamentals” on his own in these sandlot games, without the benefit of a coach. My personal experience of coaching thousands of young kids is that the vast majority of them tackle and block in an unsafe manner, until taught correctly. While not all youth coaches have been trained well, most of us have gone through basic concussion awareness and or first aid training and feel we are in a much better position to assess the health of a 9-10 year old player than himself or his buddies.
A lot of the criticism of youth football seems to center around injury rates for youth football. However the facts fly in the face of that criticism. The younger the players are, the less they get injured. There are a multitude of studies that back up what I’m saying. The Institute for Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma in New York did an extensive study on youth football players that showed there is “an absence of catastrophic head and neck injuries and disruptive injuries and joint injuries found at the higher levels.” According to that study, youth football players suffered injuries at a rate of 1/3 the rate of the high schoolers. A recent study by USA Football showed that over 96% of youth football players didn’t sustain a concussion in their latest season of play, the rate for High School, College and NFL players is much higher.
It’s common sense, the smaller and less athletic the players, the fewer the injuries. As kids age up, they get bigger and faster, so the injury rates increase. There simply aren’t any 300 lb 9 year olds out there running 4.8 forty yard dashes.
In the end it’s always going to be up to every individual family to make their own decisions about their children playing youth football. We all want the best for our children. Hopefully they will look at the situation logically and study the facts and not make the decision based on faulty perceptions. While not playing football until the ninth grade may be a great model if the only goal is separating the herd for future NFL players, it does little for the average player who gains so much from participating in competitive sports.
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