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US Youth Football Group Issues Rules to Prevent Head Injuries

  • Melinda Smith

American-style football can be a violent sport. But the recent suicides of several former professional players who'd struggled with depression and dementia have renewed concerns about the brain injuries players suffer from repeated concussions. A majority of the pros in the National Football League start learning the game as young boys in youth football leagues. Now, officials with one organization, Pop Warner football, have announced major rule changes designed to better protect young players from head trauma.

Bumping heads, part of the game

The rough-and-tumble game of American football. Players colliding.

It is not a sight many parents want to see.

In recent years, helmets have been designed to prevent skull fractures, but neurosurgeon Julian Bailes, who serves as chairman of the Pop Warner medical advisory board, says even the best helmet can't prevent a concussion -- or brain damage.

"You could have padding six inches thick, and the brain's still freely able to move and twist and tear from time to time, explained Bailes. "But in these cases, we worry about brain impact, brain damage, brain injury."

Law requires better saftey rules

That's what happened in 2006 to Zackery Lystedt. The 13-year-old athlete in Washington state suffered severe brain damage from repeated concussions he sustained during a football game. The state's governor later signed a law forbidding coaches from sending injured players back onto the field without a doctor's approval. Similar restrictions were enacted in other states, and adopted by the National Football League.

Young athletes suffer more than 2 million sports-related head injuries every year, and according to Dr. Bailes, by the time players finish college football, they've experienced as many as eight-thousand hits to the head or brain.

The Pop Warner Little Scholars program teaches football basics to young players. More than 5,000 teams play under the Pop Warner banner. Executive director Jon Butler says the group's new safety rules require that players must be less than three meters from each other during head-on tackling practice to limit the speed and force of impact. The new rules only protect players during practice.

"Teams spend multiple more hours in practice than they do in games. More injuries occur in practice, just because of the increased time," said Butler.

Whether it is the Pop Warner league or the NFL, Dr. Bailes says practice games frequently involve a rougher, faster style of play. He hopes the rule changes will reduce concussions by at least 60 percent. "We...right off the bat...[we] will eliminate the majority of brain impacts and concussions which occur...and we'll see how that translates later to the play of the game itself," he said.

NFL faces class-action lawsuit

Meanwhile, a class-action lawsuit filed recently against the National Football League on behalf of 2,000 former players alleges the NFL withheld information about traumatic brain injuries during their years of play. Negotiations between the players' union and team owners have already resulted in some changes to protect players during practice.

The new safety rules for the littlest players take effect this August when the Pop Warner league's new season gets underway.