Amidst Concern About Head Injuries, Pop Warner Issues New Practice Rules


June 14, 2012
Football has never been more popular. But is it worth the risks? Watch FRONTLINE’s Football High for more on head injuries, heatstroke and other issues facing young athletes.

Starting in August, Pop Warner youth football league practices will likely look a bit different.

The league announced yesterday that it’s revamping its practice rules in response to increased concern about head injuries in football. The rules include:

  • A ban on full speed head-on blocking or tackling drills when players line up more than 3 yards away from one another. Intentional helmet-to-helmet hits are not allowed.
  • A limit on hits during practice. Only one-third of practice time per week can be devoted to drills that use contact, which breaks down to about 40 minutes per practice.

In a press release about the revamp, Pop Warner also reiterated that certain blocking and tackling techniques, including face tacking and spearing, remain prohibited. The league is in the process of updating its website to include easily accessible information about concussions and safety.

More than 285,000 children ages 5 to 15 play in Pop Warner leagues, and they’ve produced two-thirds of the players now in the NFL, according to The New York Times. Pop Warner is the first youth football league to implement across-the-board regulations when it comes to head-injury prevention.

The new rules will be enforced by regional Pop Warner associations, according to Josh Pruce, the league’s national director of media relations. He told FRONTLINE that these associations police themselves, but are monitored by the league. He also said that many coaches are already following these new rules, and that he expects that parents will have their eyes out for any violations.

Research over the past few years has sounded alarms about how repeated hits to the head can affect the brains of football players, from young people all the way up through NFL athletes. A condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, is already a well-publicized concern for ex-football players, particularly in light of NFL safety Dave Duerson’s suicide in February 2011. Duerson requested his brain be donated for study before he shot himself in the chest; scientists later discovered he was suffering from CTE.

Recent research has found that Owen Thomas, the 21-year-old captain of the University of Pennsylvania football team who committed suicide in April 2010, was in the early stages of CTE. He had never been diagnosed with a concussion.

This spring, Stone Phillips produced a video report for Newshour on a study by a team at Virginia Tech that measured hits in 7- and 8-year-old football players. They found that impacts that measured 40g or greater — when hits start to get dangerous — occurred much more often than expected. And they occurred most often during practice.

Pop Warner is the first youth league to issue mandates about practices with limited contact, but by no means the first football program to do so. According to Purdue researcher Tom Talavage, who has studied head injuries in high school football players who have not been diagnosed with a concussion, it’s entirely possible to coach a successful team without impact during practices:

We can still play the game, and we can still play the game at a high level. I think this is where the case of Saint John’s in Minnesota — we’re talking about a team that does not have contact practices, yet has won championships at its particular level of collegiate football. We don’t have to be a bad team just because we don’t practice. Instead, maybe we’re a better team. Maybe we focus more on technique, proper technique, proper blocking, proper tackling technique. Maybe we focus more on knowing exactly where we’re supposed to be on our play, what our blocking scheme is, what our defense scheme [is].

And in an interview with ESPN, Alabama head coach Nick Saban said that the youth summer camp run by the school emphasizes technique, not contact:

We have 1,100 kids here, ages 8 to 13, and it is all non-contact. These kids are improving tremendously. It’s not just contact that a player needs. It’s a matter of knowing how to come out of a block, how to use your hands, all kinds of things you can learn without contact.

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