Could Shrinking Youth Football Help to Grow the Sport? has partnered with LexisNexis to bring you this content.

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At long last, some common sense when it comes to football.

USA Football is running a pilot program this year that will, among other things, shrink the size of the playing field, reduce the number of players on the field, ensure that similar-sized players are matching up against each other and eliminate kickoffs and punts. As radical as this sounds, it's actually the most reasonable idea anyone in football has had in a while.

And, frankly, it should have been implemented years ago.

The greatest threat to the NFL remains the concussion crisis. Specifically, that parents hearing the horror stories of former players suffering from dementia or committing suicide will decide they don't want their children playing football. Not the tackle version, anyway.

The numbers of boys 6 to 12 playing tackle football has fallen almost 20% since 2009, according to The New York Times, citing statistics from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. There was a 1.2% rise in 2015, the most recent year for which numbers were available, reported the Times.

If that continues for 20 or 30 years, the NFL will be a shadow of its current self.

"I don't want to be in an ER," Marquette Petterson said Tuesday when asked why his 9-year-old son, Myron, doesn't play football yet. "I want him to play when he's older, more developed."

The NFL has tried to stem the backslide, pouring millions into USA Football's Heads Up Football program, which is supposed to promote safer tackling. But it's too vague and technical of a concept to reassure parents -- not to mention that a study showed it didn't really work.

The latest changes will be obvious to parents but still might not make football safe enough. Kids will still be colliding, and their necks still won't be strong enough to support the weight of their helmets.

But one of the bigger mistakes youth football has always made is treating the child's game as if the participants are adults.

Most youth sports start small and build as kids get older and more skilled. Go to any park on a weekend, and you'll see kids playing small-side soccer, with four or five kids on a team and using maybe a quarter of the regular field. As they get older, the teams and the field expand.

Kids who play baseball begin hitting off a tee and graduate to having the coach pitch. Only after two or three years do the kids begin to pitch. Even then, the mound isn't 60 feet from home plate. More like 30 to 40 feet.

Tennis starts with soft, oversized balls with part of the court blocked off. Basketball has a shorter hoop and smaller ball. And on and on.

With tackle football, however, the game varies little whether the players are 6 or 26. Team sizes are the same and ditto for the field -- regardless of the fact that few 8-year-olds are a threat to throw a 60-yard deep ball.

There also are few allowances for the fact that not all 7-year-olds look alike. Jason Mullen's son, Kevin, played in a league last season in which the weight class ranged from 40 to 120 pounds.

"That would be my bigger concern," Mullen said.

Tackle football is never going to be injury-free. No contact sport will be. But 6- and 7-year-olds aren't mini-gladiators, and USA Football is right to finally acknowledge that.

If organizers want to grow the game, making it smaller is a good way to start.

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February 1, 2017


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