Tackle football sacked at B&G Club

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(Photo by Ned Hickson/Siuslaw News)

For nearly a decade, fifth- and sixth-graders have been slipping into their first set of shoulder pads and football helmets at the Boys and Girls Club of Western Lane County each fall, moving from flag football into the realm of full-contact tackle. And until recently, it was believed that the hits players often take to the head were less impactful on younger, developing brains.

However, research now shows that the brains of children and teens are even more vulnerable than the adult brain to the long-term effects of repeated impacts to the head. It was this revelation that prompted B&G Club Athletic Director Tracy Aaron to recommend the suspension of the club’s tackle football program for fifth and sixth graders.

“I was researching a program that was similar to our basketball program, where we teamed up with the Portland Trailblazers through the NBA’s community outreach program,” said Aaron. “That’s when I started finding research and articles on youth football.

“The research is overwhelming in terms of the long-term damage those kinds of hits can cause kids.”

The most recent statistics show that 70 percent of all football players in the U.S. are under the age of 14, with each child between the ages of 9 and 12 experiencing an average of 240 head impacts each season.

“I know how passionate people are about football. I am too,” said Aaron. “But if we can’t offer a program that’s safe for kids, I’d rather not offer it at all.”

Aaron approached B&G Club Director Chuck Trent about her findings and concerns, and the two agreed to suspend the program in favor of a flag football alternative.

Tuesday, parents of club members received a letter from Aaron, informing them of the decision.

“Unless we can find a new way to protect kids playing tackle football, we are not going to offer it this year and beyond,” Aaron stated in her letter, which also cited how, at every level of youth football, from Pop Warner to NFL, the number of lawsuits being leveled on programs and school districts across the country due to traumatic head and neck injuries was growing.

In an article published this past Wednesday in the journal Neurology, a study led by researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine showed that playing tackle football before the age of 12 is associated with a markedly increased risk of developing memory and thinking problems in middle age.

“The findings suggest that sustaining repeated head impacts during a critical neurodevelopmental period may increase the risk of later-life cognitive impairment,” authors of the study concluded.

Last year, the B&G Club tackle football program documented two players who suffered concussions, with three documented concussions the year before.

At the middle and high school levels throughout Oregon, coaches are required to take a certified class educating them on recognizing the potential signs of a concussion.
Given that the B&G Club sports program are coached by volunteers, there is no such requirement and turnover is ongoing from year to year.

“I don’t think it’s fair to put our volunteers in a position to have to make that kind of determination,” said Aaron. “It’s not fair to them or to our kids.”

Andy Johnson, who coached football at the junior varsity and middle school levels for 19 years, said he supports the decision by the B&G Club.

As a father of three boys, including two who played varsity football at Siuslaw and a nine-year-old entering fourth grade in the fall, Johnson said he and his wife had already decided not to have their youngest play tackle until middle school.

“I didn’t play tackle football until seventh grade and neither did our two older sons,” Johnson said. “They’re not coordinated enough yet as fifth and sixth-graders to see any real benefit. They can learn plenty of skills from flag football and wait for junior high to begin tackling.

“That’s the right time in my opinion.”

The decision to eliminate tackle football hasn’t been met with a positive response from some parents, which Aaron said she understands.

“It wasn’t a decision we came to lightly, but when we put our kids’ safety above all else, it was clear what direction we needed to take,” said Aaron.

That direction is a flag football program partnered with NFL and USA Football’s official 2017 Flag Football, which focuses on fundamental skills in all areas except tackling.

In addition, there will be a football skills clinic taught by a former NFL player and scout for the Chicago Bears.

“It’s a way to teach the fundamentals and provide skill building without the dangers of full-contact tackling for kids that age,” said Aaron.

Signups have begun and will continue through Friday, July 28, for all flag football players, grades 1 through 6.

For more information, call the Teen Center, 1501 Airport Road, at 541-902-0304, or visit www.bgcwl.org.

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