In U.S. football, kickoff is one of the most dangerous parts of the sport, and the time at which a substantial number of brain injuries, skull fractures, facial injuries and other serious impacts occur.
In an effort to combat a wellspring of negative press and declining enrollment, Pop Warner, the nation’s biggest youth football league, is doing away with kickoff – at least for its youngest players.
The New York Times reports the move makes Pop Warner the first sizable organization to take such initiative, though the NFL has considered it. Rather than engage in kickoff, players between the ages of 5 and 10 will start playing at the beginning of each half and after a score with the ball placed at the 35-yard-line. The organization said it will conduct a review of the results next year and may ultimately apply the changes to older groups too.
Earlier this year, Pop Warner settled its first and only concussion sports injury lawsuit filed by the mother of a former player. The complaint, filed in February 2016, sought millions in punitive damages for the untimely death of 25-year-old Joseph Chernach, who committed suicide in 2012. An autopsy revealed Chernach suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is a brain disease that is caused by repeated blows to the head. It can be a significant contributor to depression and other mental health issues. Chernach’s mother blamed Pop Warner’s practices for her son’s injuries. The organization reportedly paid $2 million to Chernach’s family, who then agreed to dismiss their lawsuit. The organization admitted no wrongdoing.
Last year, a federal judge approved an almost-$1 billion settlement between 20,000 retired players and the NFL, which was accused of negligent practices that resulted in concussions and foot-ball related head injuries and long-term brain damage.
Pop Warner used to carry a $2 million liability policy on each of its players, though that has been reduced to $1 million. Individual chapters do have the option of purchasing an additional $1 million per-player policy.
More than 325,000 youth are involved in Pop Warner sports, which include football, cheerleading and dance. The organization did boast some 250,000 football players in 2010, but that figure fell rapidly by 10 percent from 2010 to 2012. Speculation is that a growing awareness of the risk of brain injuries and head injuries has parents rightfully concerned.
Washington state was first to pass a law requiring coaches to bench young players if they suspect a concussion. Pop Warner followed suit in 2010, requiring medical clearance from a doctor before the children could return to the game. Two years later, the team prohibited full-speed, head-on blocking and tackling drills (where players line up face-to-face three feet apart and charge).
Kickoffs are an especially treacherous part of the game because players are required to race full speed down the field and charge straight into those carrying the ball and those blocking for them – some of whom don’t have any time to brace for that forceful impact.
Still, not all are happy about this change. One advocate argued that to do so was a means of, “bastardizing the game.” Still, he said children younger than 9-years-old shouldn’t play tackle football but instead should play flag football, with tackle football starting with high school players.
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Pop Warner Bans Kickoffs in Hopes of Protecting Its Youngest Players, May 12, 2016, By Ken Belson, The New York Times
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