Football’s a dirty, dangerous game. It’s never been for the fainthearted, and that’s part of the appeal. But in order to save the game, and stop parents from steering their kids away from the gridiron, new rules are necessary. The game will have to be safer to attract future generations.
Change might have to come first from the ranks, where parents’ impact is still greater than that of big-money TV deals and wealthy alumni boosters. Change may come from schools like Vestavia Hills High, or even from the Pop Warner organization, the nation’s oldest youth football and cheerleading program, where an estimated 250,000 kids play football across the country.
Pop Warner’s executive director, Jon Butler, is taking safety more seriously these days, thinking of new rules and creative ways to better train volunteer coaches.
His organization created a medical advisory board of neurologists and neurosurgeons to examine how to avoid and detect concussions. It has decided to immediately take any child with a head or neck injury out of the game, and to require a doctor’s note to allow that child to play again.
The group has set limits on how long each player can stay in a game and how much contact is allowed during practices. Coaches cannot spend more than a third of practice time
in full speed contact. And no full-speed drills can start more than three yards apart.
Butler envisions a time when brain scans will be mandatory each season for all children who want to play football. He wants to use this technology to identify kids who are most susceptible to brain injuries. And those players, he said, would be directed to other sports with less contact and fewer collisions.
Good luck selling those ideas to the NCAA or the NFL and its player unions — or even some parents. But I think Butler is headed in the right direction. He’s putting player safety first.
Call me silly, but I think a kid should be able to dream about becoming an NFL star playing in the Super Bowl — a safe Super Bowl. Who knows? She might just become a superstar on her own field on the way to the Big Game.
Editor’s note: Roxanne Jones is a founding editor of ESPN The Magazine and a former vice president at ESPN. She is a national lecturer on sports, entertainment and women’s topics and a recipient of the 2010 Woman of the Year award from Women in Sports and Events. She is the co-author of “Say It Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete” (Random House) and CEO of Push Media Strategies. She’s working on her second book.