Big hits, lower numbers

Fewer kids playing football

Fewer kids playing football

HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - Many of you devote a large chunk of your weekend to watching your favorite football team. From the tailgate to the kickoff, it’s part of our culture here in the South. Yet, as we found out in this special report, some young athletes are tackling different challenges, once their parents hear the letters C-T-E.

Alabama. The number one team in the country. Yet, like other top teams, one of the Tide’s top concerns is the safety of their players. And today, many coaches of beginning players say concern about kids' safety has parents pushing them into other sports they consider safer.

Darrell Miles, who coaches the Huntsville Sting in the North Alabama American Youth Football league, says, “When we started, we would actually have two or three teams per age group. Now, we’re at one team per age group.”

Miles is talking about what he’s seen in the eight years he’s coached youth football teams in Huntsville. This is just a small window into what’s happening across the country. The National Federation of State High School Associations reports, since the 2009 season, football participation has declined 7 percent.

When you see stadiums in Tuscaloosa and Auburn packed with passionate fans, it doesn’t look like football has lost its luster. But, parents say, when it’s their kids involved in the big hits, it’s natural to worry. Miles admits, “The concussion issue is out there. And, parents are a little more in tune, in looking up the information, looking up other sports to do. So, that’s the actual factor in why the numbers are down.”

Every parent we talked with admits, the concussion issue is the “elephant in the room”. That’s because they keep seeing headlines like this:

Just this season, a star linebacker with Pike County High School in Georgia died from a head injury two days after getting hurt during a game, and complaining that he couldn’t feel his body.

Dr. Bennet Omalu, who's widely credited for discovering CTE, and inspired the movie Concussion, calls youth football "child abuse".

Dr. Bennett Omalu and Will Smith, the actor who played Dr. Omalu in the movie "Concussion"
Dr. Bennett Omalu and Will Smith, the actor who played Dr. Omalu in the movie "Concussion" (Source: NBC Miami)

Dr. Omalu says children shouldn't play high contact sports before they're 18 years old. He says, after studying collisions, concussions and their effect on the brain, he doesn't think there's any way to make football safer.

Yet, some North Alabama parents and coaches disagree. Joe Martin, an Assistant Coach with the Huntsville Sting told us, “Teaching these guys how to tackle. That’s half our practice most of the time. Teaching a guy not to hit with your helmet, keep your head up, see what you’re hitting, it’s all in the techniques that we teach 'em.”

Kimberly Scott’s son also plays for the Huntsville Sting. She’s been part of youth football in Huntsville for eight years. Scott says the coaches spend a lot of time focusing on player safety. “They are always required to take a test on safety. So, that’s helped a lot. So, I’m not afraid of my son playing football”

Yet, other parents are being more cautious. The President of the North Alabama American Youth Football league says, he’s seeing the biggest reduction in players 8 and younger. In fact, he says, they had to drop their 5-6 year old program.

While 20,000 fewer athletes played high school football across the country during the past year, it’s still, by a large number, the most popular sport for males in Alabama. Nearly 31 thousand teens played high school football last season, compared to 15 thousand in baseball and just under 14 thousand in basketball.

Football coaches say they’re losing good athletes who chose to specialize in just one sport, to give themselves a better chance at a scholarship, plus other kids are choosing the lure of video games.

Martin makes it clear. “Football is hard. If you’re in the air conditioning all the time and kids are on computers and video games, football is very hard. You get outside in the summer heat. I mean it’s October and it’s still 90 degrees. Football is a hard sport.”

How difficult? The results of a recent study by Swedish researchers found, if a child has one concussion that leads to a hospital stay, he’s two to four times more likely to have depression or even commit suicide as an adult.

In response to those disturbing findings, coaches with the North Alabama American Youth Football league encourage parents, who are worried about CTE and the effects of concussions, to talk with them about what’s being done to improve player safety.

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