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Chicago Daily Herald
By Jamie Sotonoff jsotonoff@dailyherald.com 

Concussion news from the NFL and the NCAA continues to dominate sports headlines, but it's having little impact on suburban youth football leagues.

As football season gets underway, suburban leagues report enrollment in their tackle football programs is flat or slightly lower, but many attribute any decrease to a variety of factors and not just concussion fears.

Meanwhile, suburban flag football leagues - seen by some as a safer and less intimidating alternative to tackle football - report slight increases in enrollment.

"I feel like I've heard a lot less about concussions than I have the previous few years," said Dennis Piron, board member of the Batavia Youth Football program, which saw a slight drop in participants this year. "I would attribute the decrease more toward specialization (of youth sports)."

With more children becoming one-sport athletes, new fall baseball and basketball leagues lure kids away from tackle football as much as concussion concerns do, some suburban coaches say.

RELATED: How to Manage Concussions in Athletics

Other factors that come into play for parents are the increasingly competitive nature of youth sports, the cost and the time commitment, some coaches say. Some leagues practice as much as two hours a night, five days a week.

"There are so many different options for the kids now," said Dominick Parisi, president of the Mount Prospect Football league. "If kids start playing two to three sports, it's expensive, so they choose one."

Yet, flag football also could be stealing younger players away from tackle programs in the wake of recent news like the National Football League's July financial settlement with thousands of former players for concussion-related claims. Just last week, the NCAA agreed to pay $75 million to settle lawsuits by former collegiate players who accused it of ignoring the concussion problem.

"(In sports), football is always number one ... but parents worry about their kids getting hurt," said Bill Pemstein of Lake Zurich, whose three sons played both flag and tackle football.

"You can only play flag for a while. It's a great place to start. They throw the ball around and have fun," he said.

Since concussion dangers were put in the spotlight a few years ago, local youth league coaches say they've made big efforts to make youth football safer. They've upgraded equipment, educated coaches about head injuries and taught players USA Football's "Heads Up Football" technique, which limits repeated hits to the tops of helmets.

"(Tackle football) has never been safer," said RG Javorek, director of operations at the traveling Naperville Youth Football League, where enrollment shot up from 40 tackle players last year to 192 this season, something he attributes to quality coaching and an emphasis on safety.

"I'd much rather have my son playing football than lacrosse, hockey or soccer," he added, saying those sports are more dangerous than football.

RELATED: Opinion: High School Football Will Never Be Totally Safe

Many football coaches say their sport is unfairly singled out on the concussion issue, saying head injuries are a concern in almost every sport. Several coaches mentioned the recent World Cup soccer game where a player, clearly concussed, was sent back into the game and there was no public outcry.

"At least football does something about it," Piron said.

Injuries were down last year in the 38 leagues and 360 teams that make up The Chicagoland Youth Football League, said league President Geoff Meyer, a Lake Zurich resident.

"(Concussion fears) are factoring in a little bit, but not as much as it did early on," he said. "Some parents say it's becoming too competitive. Everyone wants to win now. If they don't win, the other team must have cheated, the refs blew the game, or the league rules stink. But not everyone can win."

Whether flag football is safer and less intense than tackle football is a subject of debate in youth football circles. Regardless, flag football's popularity is increasing locally.

At the Vernon Hills Cougars Youth Athletic Association, flag football enrollment jumped 20 percent this year, coaches said.

Only in its second year, Palatine's Northwest Flag Football League reports a 5 percent jump over last year, and enrollment is still open for another week, said Director of Operations Matt May.

The boost in flag football players might ultimately boost the number of tackle players, May said. His league is run by "tackle guys," including former Chicago Bears player and Palatine Mayor Jim Schwantz and several retired high school football coaches.

"We totally support tackle football, but there is a whole group of kids who aren't ready for it," May said. "We're getting kids out there playing. That's what's important."

Nationally, both tackle and flag football numbers are dropping. According to a 2014 report from the Sports & Industry Fitness Association, participation in both tackle and flag football has declined slowly but steadily between 2008 and 2013. So has enrollment in team sports like baseball and basketball. Meanwhile, numbers are up for sports like lacrosse, hockey and gymnastics.

Here in the suburbs, enrollment varies from league to league, and the numbers ebb and flow, Meyer said. When numbers soar like they did in 2008, the leagues get an influx of players and the quality of coaching decreases because leagues have to scramble to find enough coaches. Then the enrollment numbers come down, and the cycle repeats.

"Now, it's quality over quantity," Meyer said. "It's leveling off, so now I think it's going to see some increase in the next few years."

August 6, 2014

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