Copyright 2017 The Deseret News Publishing Co.
Deseret Morning News (Salt Lake City)
SALT LAKE CITY — How dire is the crisis that football faces in the "concussion era"? The Ute Conference, one of the biggest little league programs in the country, reports that the league had an 8 percent decline in participation this year — and league officials are happy about it, or rather relieved. It could be worse — and is, elsewhere.
Football is under siege and interest in playing the game is waning.
"It has to do with concussions," says Jeff Gorringe, who, as business manager of the Ute Conference, oversees just about everything in the league.
The decline in participation is in the younger age groups; parents are steering their kids away from the game in response to numerous reports about brain damage caused by repeated blows to the head.
The Ute Conference league, which has 7,100 players and fields 173 games per week, is undertaking a grass-roots effort to preserve the game. League officials are teaching young football players to tackle like rugby players, with the head to the side and making initial contact with the shoulder, rather than the traditional face-in-the numbers technique; they are spending about $500,000 annually on new, updated helmets; they have secured a player-safety coach to monitor games and practices to ensure that safe techniques are being taught and practiced; they increased training for their 2,500 coaches, requiring them to watch a four-hour video on player safety; they are planning to create a flag league next fall to provide opportunities for kids whose parents are skittish about the game; and they are reaching out to potential players.
This summer the league bought six radio spots in which they discussed player safety and what they are doing about it.
"We advertised a ton to get ahead of the game," says Gorringe. "We want to keep the numbers up and keep the sport strong. ... We're down far less than the rest of the country. Our view is that if the rest of country doesn't start doing the things we're doing, football could be in trouble in 10 years."
According to a report by the National Federation of State High School Associations, participation in football dropped by about 26,000 players in the 2016-17 season, and that was with the addition of 52 new teams (participation in Utah has actually increased almost annually, from 8,212 players in 2011 to 9,170 this season).
The San Francisco Chronicle reported the findings of a survey from the California Interscholastic Federation that indicated participation in football has decreased by about 10 percent in the last decade. Meanwhile, participation in high school sports has increased for 28 straight years to nearly 8 million.
This is believed to be a direct response to a health crisis that went undetected for decades: brain damage from repeated concussions. The fallout for the sport never seems to end. According to an ESPN report, 34 NFL players under the age of 30 have retired in the past two years because they feared brain damage.
There have been repeated studies that have shown the long-term damage of repeated blows on the football field, not to mention lawsuits by former players. There was even a Hollywood movie ("Concussion"). The real-life doctor who is portrayed in that movie is Bennet Omalu, who is credited with discovering Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (a disease caused by repeated blows to the head). Last month Omalu declared that allowing kids to play football is child abuse.
The game is taking more hits than a nose guard. Last weekend two college players died from injuries on the field.
All of which makes football more difficult to sell to parents whose kids want to play the game, but the Ute Conference is trying.
Gorringe says the league has certified trainers on every field and that they follow strict concussion protocols. The league also has enacted tough penalties for both offensive and defensive players who lead with the helmet.
Gorringe receives weekly reports from trainers — he estimates there are 12-15 injuries each week (counting all injuries, not just head trauma) — and forwards them to league presidents who then ensure that those players don't play a game or practice again until they are cleared by a doctor.
Looking ahead, Gorringe states the obvious when he says, "If you don't have kids interested in playing the game, there won't be any high school or college game."
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