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Evansville Courier & Press (Indiana)
EVANSVILLE — During the dog days of every summer, the War on Football re-enters the public consciousness and spurs a debate about the sport's dangers.
Like clockwork, a new case study emerges about how concussions suffered while playing football can lead to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease.
Everyone seems to have an opinion. The dispute over whether it's safe for our children is as divisive as our political climate.
On one side, doctors and parents have called to change how the game is played or outright ban it. A proposal was introduced earlier this year in Illinois to prohibit tackle football for kids under 12.
"Any parent is concerned about the benefits and risks of playing sports," said Amanda Boehleber, a local family physician who has two sons playing football.
On the other side are ardent fans who view the game as an essential part of life. Don't mind that even the NFL acknowledges a link between CTE and football, skeptics will muddy the science.
Yet, boys still want to play, so adults are proactively taking measures to make it safer.
Organizations such as the Evansville Junior Football League are in the middle trying to appease both.
"I feel very comfortable with my child participating in the EJFL, and there are multiple benefits," Boehleber said. "Compared to other sports we participate in the area, EJFL is very progressive."
There are 220 boys on 12 EJFL teams this fall, nearly the same number as last year. The 49-year-old league at one time hosted 20 teams, but most high schools have their own feeder systems now, and that's affected turnout.
Of course, numbers could be lower for a handful of issues — cost, single-sport specialization and general injury concerns — that continue to plague the game. Concussions simply remain at the forefront.
"You can get a concussion walking down the street and taking a fall," said Eric Dockery, the EJFL safety commissioner. "Football is dangerous, but we make sure our coaches understand heads-up tackling, so the kids learn to do things right and keep their heads out of the play."
Every EJFL coach undergoes a background check, completes an online USA Football certification course about proper tackling and then participates in a safety clinic before ever running a practice. You can't walk up on gameday and decide you want to coach that morning.
EMS volunteers and other nurses also are on site during games to recognize and treat injuries. Players are encouraged before the season to take baseline concussion tests, which the EJFL offers for free.
"We want to make sure if a kid does have any slight symptom of a concussion, they're out of the game immediately," said Dockery, who also has been a coach for eight years. "We take that out of the hands of the coaches. We have our volunteers who are trained to make sure they go through the protocol."
That doesn't prevent a pair of 7-year-olds from running full-speed into each other and inflicting otherwise avoidable injury. It's a risk from playing the game, though.
"I don't see kids hitting any harder or being more physical than they were 15-20 years ago," EJFL commissioner Randy Babb said. "I've been coaching for 45 years, and the youth haven't changed other than they don't get out and play as much backyard football like they used to."
This fall, the EJFL features three divisions instead of two, which had been the case since the 1990s. They are split by grade: Junior (second and third), intermediate (fourth and fifth) and senior (sixth and seventh).
Previously, they were second through fourth and fifth through seventh. There was quite the disparity in size, ability and maturity between some.
"My son is a fifth-grader, and if they would not have switched the league to where it is now, my son would not have played," EJFL Patriots coach Ryan Wargel said. "I know several parents that feel that way and have pulled their kids out of football due to that."
Wargel has been a coach for seven years. He's part of a football family and has been around the game nearly his entire life. Although he doesn't like the spotlight on concussions, he understands the outcry.
"I'm 44 and played in a time when it was simply getting your bell rung, and you go to the sideline to get a dose of smelling salts," Wargel said. "They'll then wave some fingers in the air, and any number other than five got you back on the field."
Over 1 million boys played high school football last year, which was down two percent from 2016, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Enrollment has declined 6.6 percent in the past decade, but it remains the most popular sport.
This newfound hyperawareness of the dangers that come along with playing the game has positively and negatively impacted all levels.
If concussions were never brought to the forefront, leagues such as the EJFL probably wouldn't have taken strides to improve safety. Counterpoint: More boys might be playing overall, and football lifers might not feel as under attack had the focus not shifted.
Not all smokers develop lung cancer, just like not all football players will suffer from CTE. Repeated blows to the head, however, make it more likely for anyone to develop long-term brain disorders. That, too, is part of the game.
Boys are still spending their fall on the gridiron, learning the same life lessons as generations before them. It's just a bit safer now.
Contact Courier & Press columnist Chad Lindskog by email firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @chadlindskog.
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