Optimist Youth Football’s participation dropped by 44 percent in Boise and Meridian from 2011 to 2016.
A key reason: Parents like Nick Anderson of Meridian are deciding the sport isn’t worth the risk.
Anderson, who has officiated football games in the Treasure Valley for 10 years, says he won’t let his 11-year-old son play tackle football.
“The part that’s hard for me is we can put all of these programs in place, like Heads Up, but realistically the coaches fully have to buy into it, and I truthfully don’t believe that they do,” Anderson said. “From an officiating standpoint, so many times we say: ‘That’s a targeting shot. You hit the kid straight in the head with your helmet. You can’t do that.’ You flag him and explain to the kid, ‘Hey, you need to tackle with your head up.’
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“But the kid walks back to the sideline and here’s the coach: ‘Great hit, Billy! Do it again!’ And that’s frightening to me.”
Optimist Youth Football’s player decline coincides with a nationwide trend that shows participation in tackle football by boys between the ages of 6 and 12 has dropped by nearly 20 percent since 2009. The Optimist program includes ages 6 to 13.
USA Football, the national governing body for amateur football, attributes the decline to an increased awareness of, and emphasis on, safety — particularly when it comes to head injuries.
There is mounting evidence linking repeated head trauma to a degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. A recent study by Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist, found CTE in 110 of 111 brains from former NFL players.
Research like that is making parents think twice about signing up their kids for tackle football.
USA Football hopes to address safety concerns with a modified version of the game called rookie tackle.
This fall, 11 youth leagues in nine states will participate in a pilot program for rookie tackle, but a nationwide rollout of the new program won’t be offered until 2018.
Idaho isn’t one of the states participating in the pilot program.
Key differences from the 11-man game include six, seven or eight players on the field per team; a field that measures 40 yards by 35 yards; players rotating positions; players starting in a two-point stance; and elimination of kickoff and punt returns.
Optimist Youth Football President Jerron Moore isn’t convinced USA Football’s modified version of youth tackle is a step in the right direction.
“I call it window dressing. They’re not really dealing with the problem, and I hate to say it, but the reality is it’s coaches and parents,” said Moore, whose teams begin practice Monday. “If you teach the kids proper technique and if you have good practices and you do things correctly, the game is extremely safe.
“Where it gets out of hand is when you don’t teach proper techniques, or you get so busy being competitive at the wrong age at the wrong time that it puts kids in danger.”
In addition to a decline in tackle numbers, Moore said his flag teams also have reduced in number. OYF fielded 42 flag football teams in 2011 but was down to just 14 in 2016. OYF, a USA Football member, is the oldest and largest youth football program in the Treasure Valley, but there are other tackle and flag providers at the local level.
“As people have moved in here and the base has become diversified, there’s more offerings, more things for kids to do,” said Moore, who says soccer and lacrosse have become bigger draws. “One of the biggest complaints we face is the fact that again, we play on Saturdays. That’s the only time we can get referees, and we’re getting a lot of pushback from parents that don’t want to have their weekends tied up. It’s not any one thing so much as a combination of a lot of things.”
USA Football came out with its Heads Up initiative in 2012 and says that more than 7,000 youth and high school organizations now use the program, which begins with ensuring coaches are trained in fundamental aspects of football safety, injury prevention and injury recognition. OYF firmly believes in the Heads Up program, Moore said.
“I think like any sport or anything you do in life, you continue to get better and you continue to look at new techniques, and I think we got pushed to that real fast,” Moore said “I think at that point we went, ‘Woah!’ Just because you could play the game doesn’t mean you could coach it.”
Jeff Johnson is one of the coaches in the OYF program. Johnson played for the league as a child and now has his 9-year-old son enrolled on his first tackle team. Johnson and all of OYF’s coaches take an online course through USA Football and live training, and they have their practices monitored to make sure they are teaching proper technique.
“I definitely have heard it from friends that they’re keeping their kid out of tackle football at this time and choosing to pursue flag football or other sports,” Johnson said. “But I’ve had kids that play soccer and I’ve also had kids that play flag football, and there’s a tremendous amount of opportunity for them to have head-to-head contact without a helmet.
“With the emphasis on Heads Up Football and keeping the head out of the game, I don’t have a concern for my son to be facing injury. And if they do get injured, the training to recognize that injury and then keep them off the field and follow necessary protocols has been drastically improved over the years.”
More than 1,500 kids from Boise and Meridian participated in tackle football with OYF in 2016, numbers strong enough to convince Moore youth football doesn’t need to reinvent itself just yet. But the program included 2,700 kids in 2011.
“At the end of the day, we’re a nonprofit. We believe in the game. We love the game. I think the kids we have today are the kids who want to continue on, and we’re going to do everything we can to give them the best possible (experience),” Moore said. “That’s our commitment. A safe game and a great game. If it goes some other direction, so be it, but we are going to continue to do what we do for as long as we can.”