Parents' dilemma: Let children play football?

Already uneasy about the idea of letting her 7-year-old son Jason start playing tackle football, Elizabeth Giancarli made up her mind when former NFL star Junior Seau committed suicide.

While many of her son's friends are moving on to tackle, he'll be playing another year of flag football.

"I just couldn't put him in tackle football, only because of everything that's been going on," Giancarli said. "I think that the Junior Seau suicide really hit home, too. So we decided to put him in another year of flag, because the impact is significantly less."

Giancarli hasn't ruled out the possibility of letting her son play tackle when he gets older. But she hopes he won't want to.

"I hate to take that experience away from him, especially since we all love the game so much," Giancarli said. "But I just don't know if it's worth it."

That's a tough thing to say for Giancarli, a Tampa Bay Buccaneers season-ticket holder who drives all the way from the Fort Lauderdale area to attend games. But she's among parents nationwide who have felt compelled to reconsider whether football is safe enough for their children amid a steady flow of reports on the potential long-term effects of repeated head injuries, an ever-growing list of concussion lawsuits filed by former NFL players against the league, and the New Orleans Saints bounty controversy.

Plus, now, the death at age 43 of Seau, a star linebacker for two decades.

Although it is not clear why Seau killed himself earlier this month, his death advanced what already was an uncomfortable national conversation about the hidden consequences of playing football.

And while it is too early to establish a link between parents' safety concerns and football's popularity, there are indications that fewer kids across the country are putting on pads.

Research from the National Sporting Goods Association indicates overall football participation across all age ranges has decreased from 10.1 million in 2006 to 9 million in 2011, with the most significant drops in the 12-17 and 18-24 age groups.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, the number of high school boys playing 11-man football rose from 886,840 in 1992-93 to 1,112,303 in 2008-09. But after 16 years of nearly uninterrupted growth, the number of players has declined slightly during the two most recent years for which data was available: to 1,109,278 in 2009-10 and 1,108,441 in 2010-11. The number of youths participating in less common forms of the game - 9-player, 8-player and 6-player football - also fell slightly in the two most recent years available.

The decline doesn't appear to be a function of school budget cutbacks. According to the NFHS data, the number of high schools offering 11-player football continues to increase.

NFHS director of sports and sports medicine Bob Colgate says the small decline hasn't raised red flags among high school sports administrators and may be the result of normal fluctuation in class sizes.

Dr. Michael Koester, a pediatric sports medicine specialist in Eugene, Ore., who has advised the NFHS, says it's too early to connect a downward trend with parents' safety concerns - but says the numbers are worth watching, especially in youth football.

"I think it would be difficult to read anything into that at this point," Koester said. "I think we really have to look at what those high school numbers do over a four- or five-year period of time. And maybe more importantly at this time would be trying to get an idea from Pop Warner, from USA Football, see what's happening at the lower levels. I think if we're going to see a culture shift from a participation standpoint, I suspect that we're going to see it more at those lower levels, where parents are going to be deciding there's just no reason for their 7-, 8- or 9-year-old to be out there playing.

"And frankly, I support them in that. My son didn't start playing until he was 12."

USA Football says participation in youth football has been relatively stable in recent years, at about 3 million kids - but USA Football executive director Scott Hallenbeck acknowledges that may change, given parents' concerns about safety.

"My sense of it is, we're going to see a drop in participation," Hallenbeck said.

Hoping to ease those concerns, USA Football - a national organization founded by the NFL and the NFL Players Association - has put safety measures in place in recent years for the youth leagues that have joined its membership. USA Football-affiliated coaches must take a training class and pass a test, then follow specific instructions that include proper equipment fitting, an age-specific approach to teaching tackling and other techniques, and limits on contact in practice.

This fall, USA Football will launch what Hallenbeck believes is the first comprehensive study on injuries in youth football.

"Clearly, there's a concern, and we have been proactive on that for five or six years," Hallenbeck said.

Dr. Shayne Fehr, a pediatric/adolescent concussion specialist at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, said more parents are expressing safety concerns to him.

"I had a patient this past week, he came in with his second concussion," Fehr said. "I believe he was about 14 years old, and his mother said - before he even got a chance to talk - that he's done with football."

Yet Fehr also said such dramatic declarations are rare.

"You have to remember that a lot of times, these families have grown up with sports such as football," Fehr said.

Former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner caused a stir recently when he said he worried about his own children playing football, but he's not the only ex-pro with reservations. For ex-NFL safety Matt Bowen, there aren't easy answers when it comes to balancing safety concerns against the positive things kids can learn from football.

"But I've had this conversation with my wife quite a bit, and I know in our house, our boys aren't going to play youth football," Bowen said. "My wife's already taken care of that. That's just not going to happen."

Bowen, who now writes columns for the Chicago Tribune and the website, gets a lot of questions from fellow fathers.

"I tell them that I love the game," Bowen said. "I respect everything I learned from the NFL, and in college and in high school. I don't think there's a better sport out there in terms of teamwork. I really don't, in terms of learning how to deal with some adversity that you deal with in real life. But I also tell them I got beat up a lot, had a lot of injuries. People ask about concussions all the time. `What do you think? What's your stance on it?' A lot of times I just change the discussion. You're out drinking beer with some dads and they ask you, you talk about it a little bit. Yeah, I think it's violent. I think it's violent and I think it's made for young men, not little boys."

Kia LaBracke experienced that violence firsthand when her son, Nico, sustained a concussion from a big hit he took while returning a punt in a freshman football game in Oconomowoc, Wis. last fall. It took him months for him to recover and return to school full-time, leaving LaBracke and her husband, John, to make a difficult decision: They weren't going to let him play again.

"We knew it was going to be very tough," LaBracke said. "Because he's very dedicated to the sport, he's a very hard worker. This was his thing. A lot of his identity, who he was and who he is, was tied up in that."

LaBracke, who had a working knowledge of concussion issues through her job as the executive director of the Wisconsin chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said her son didn't take the decision well.

"On an intellectual level, of course he understands," LaBracke said. "He would never say that, but of course he understands it. But I still don't think he's quite let go of the feeling that this is really unjust."

Now Nico's younger brother, Jack, is playing.

"But we've told him flat-out, we don't know how long this is going to last," LaBracke said. "We may cut this off at any point. And he understands it, because he watched what his brother went through. He was there when Nico came home and didn't know who his own brother was. I don't think he would be surprised if we pulled the plug at any point."

Chicagoan Erin O'Leary has told her 7-year-old son, Liam, that he can't play tackle for now. And she's hearing similar thoughts from fellow parents.

"Some of them are just like, `Oh, well, they don't hit that hard at this age and it's not a big deal,"' O'Leary said. "But some like me, you keep seeing things on the news, reports that are released, and it is cause for concern. I mean, sports are great. I think there's a definite place for them, but long-term brain damage is not worth it. They have a long life ahead of them to do a lot of things."

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