Brian Murphy: Would you let your kid play football? Parents must decide

bmurphy@idahostatesman.comApril 6, 2014 

Ten-year-old Tyler Ball, like many boys his age in the Treasure Valley, is a Boise State football fanatic. And he wants to play tackle football.

So Troy and Katie Ball of Star, like many parents in the Treasure Valley and across the nation, faced a tough choice. Let Tyler play or keep him from the game he loves because of safety concerns, particularly head injuries.

The Balls have decided to let Tyler play in the Nampa PAL association.

"My wife has the typical concerns, as do I. However, I believe that the player safety is better now than it has been in the past, and my son could easily get a concussion while going up for a rebound and having his legs knocked out from under him during a basketball game," Troy Ball said.

"I completely believe in protecting my children, but as a father of four, I also believe that there is so much good that comes from athletics and so many life and character-building aspects to sports. I want my children to be part of a team atmosphere and to be able to learn from not only their peers, but also their coaches. Believe me when I say I pray for their safety, but at some point you have to let children and people experience what they want to experience in life."

The Balls are not alone in weighing the decision - and the potential risks - carefully. Early sign-ups for Optimist Youth Football will be held Saturday, once again in conjunction with Boise State's spring football event.

Optimist experienced a 3-percent decline in participation last year, a dip at least partially attributable to increasing concerns about player safety at all levels of football.

Declining participation levels and safety concerns prompted the NFL to hold an all-expenses-paid event in Indianapolis for youth football programs, including Optimist, to discuss its research findings and encourage safer practices.

"We're being very proactive. We're doing everything humanly possible to get ahead of it," said Jerron Moore, a longtime Optimist president who is now the program's director of coaching and player safety.

"No longer is there going to be a dad that steps on the field, you hand him a whistle and he's a football coach. Never going to happen again."

Optimist requires all coaches and assistant coaches to take live and online training. Moore and a small group of supervisors attend a practice for every team, taking notes and providing additional instruction.

Additionally, the organization evaluated each of its 2,642 helmets. It took more than 940 out of circulation, determining they were too old. Coaches also get training on the proper fit for helmets.

"We're focused on two things: Make sure helmets are good, safe and fit right and have the best-trained coaches," Moore said. "There's a risk. But we think we have done everything possible to make sure this game that we love is safe and we're doing it right."

A two-year survey by the Datalys Center of 4,000 players (ages 5 to 14) in six states by the found that youth football players have a 4.3-percent chance of having a concussion over a two-year period. High school players are at 8.3 percent and college players at 8.8 percent.

Those risks, along with a steady stream of stories about long-term health problems in retired football players, have left some parents unwilling to let their sons play.

Nine-year-old Payne Kaufmann has been attending Boise State football games since before he could walk. But his parents, Tim and Angela of Boise, aren't ready to let him play tackle football.

"We're not 100 percent against him playing football, but we have a lot of concerns," Tim Kaufmann said. "You're glad you had healthy kids when they came out and you want to keep them that way."

Kirby Kolka played Division II college football "back when a concussion was getting your bell rung." Son Kellen, who turns 9 in June, wants to play tackle football, but Kirby - who watches football, has Boise State tickets and plays fantasy football - is not convinced.

"I do feel bad because I know he loves it. It's hard because I love football and played it and he wants to know why he can't," Kirby Kolka said. "I'm kind of torn right now because of all the research they're doing. As time goes on, they're figuring out how dangerous the head thing is. I'd rather err on the of caution."

This is football's challenge, at every level from youth to the NFL: Convince parents that the sport is safe enough for their sons.

The leagues, to their credit and because their continued existence depends on it, are doing more than ever. Is it enough? Parents will decide.

They, the parents of football-loving sons, have a tough decision to make.

Brian Murphy: 377-6444, Twitter: @MurphsTurph

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