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Pop Warner opts to keep kids safe

Updated: August 31, 2012 1:45PM

Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football organization, announced last month it was drastically reducing “contact” during practices.

In other words, children would be subjected to fewer hits and tackles by their peers. On its website, the organization said it acted in light of developing concussion research.

This is good news for kids as young as 5 who play tackle football. But why are 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds playing at all?

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady wasn’t allowed to play until he was 14.

I will venture to guess that more often than not young boys play to please moms and dads who see the sport as a rite of passage.

But how dangerous is youth football? Perhaps it’s not as bad as I had thought for children under 14.

“I’d rather my son play Pop Warner than high school football,” said Dr. E. Quinn Regan, an orthopedic spinal surgeon at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights.

Regan coached his son for four years in a youth league with no affiliation to Pop Warner, beginning when his son was in second grade. He noticed there were few hits at those levels.

As boys’ bodies mature, the force of their hits becomes greater, and they don’t miss their targets as often.

In 18 years in journalism, I have written about high school, college and occasionally professional football. I have seen why it’s good for some.

About 10 years ago, I spoke to several high school linemen who were obese, weighing 275 or more. Some were 400-pounders. They were too heavy to wrestle, too slow to play soccer and sometimes ridiculed for their size.

Some of the teens already were struggling with high blood pressure before joining football.

Football helped their self-esteem and general health. Some went on to win college scholarships.

Football did wonders for them.

Another reality settled in over time. Once in awe of a tackler who hit a player with such pronounced force that the player fell to the ground like a brick, I started thinking about potential damage to the decleated player.

How hard did his head hit the ground? Did he literally or figuratively see stars?

Head-on collisions, intentional or not, can make even the most die-hard fan cringe.

The NFL is being forced to acknowledge the effects that hits have on the brain as research on concussions continues to pour in.

Pop Warner took its cue from those studies and reduced contact.

“We can reduce 60 to 70 percent of head impact because that’s what occurs at practices,” said Dr. Julian Bailes, chairman of the Pop Warner Medical Advisory Board and co-director of the NorthShore Neurological Institute. “This is a first step to make it safer.”

To their credit, youth football organizations nationwide have taken some precautions for years, such as imposing weight limits so a stocky 80-pound 9-year-old doesn’t pounce on a scrawny, 55-pounder.

But those who aren’t affiliated with Pop Warner need to heed that organization’s reduction in contact to err on the side of caution and perhaps protect themselves from potential lawsuits down the line.

Bailes is throwing down a challenge to high school, college and NFL teams.

“Why don’t they consider limiting exposure?” he asks. “Do they believe [hits to the head] are not exposure-based?

If you play through college, it is believed you have an average of 8,000 hits to your brain,” he said. “Are other levels going to sit back and say, ‘We’re not going to do anything?’ ”

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