The number of young people playing tackle football on Long Island is declining because of what parents, coaches and administrators said are concerns over the potential long-term damages of head injuries and concussions.
The drop in participation has officials concerned about the future of the sport and has spurred an increase in alternatives to tackle football — such as flag football, which emphasizes passing and running and doesn’t require tackling.
“Parents are reading about the injuries and concussion issues and they’re saying, ‘Why would I want my son to do that?’ ” said Pat Pizzarelli, a longtime high school football coach and administrator who is now executive director of Section VIII, Nassau’s governing body for scholastic athletics.
There were 578 fewer high school football players last season at 121 Long Island schools with football programs, according to statistics obtained by Newsday from New York State Public High School Athletic Association, the state’s governing body of high school sports.
The drop to 8,082 players in the 2016 season from 8,660 in 2015 represents a 6.7 percent decrease, which is a sharper decline compared to New York State (3.9 percent) and national participation numbers (2.2 percent).
In middle schools, the decrease is even more pronounced, with a reported 4,944 players last year compared to 5,363 the season before — a 7.8 percent drop in participation.
A Newsday analysis of local, state and national participation numbers in tackle football shows a steady decline since 2009, when head trauma in football became a national talking point.
“It definitely is a concern of ours where football will be in the next 20 years,” said Todd Nelson, New York State Public High School Athletic Association assistant director. “We do have those discussions.”
East Hampton High School canceled its varsity and junior varsity football program in September because it could not meet the state required minimum of 16 players. Seven Nassau County schools — Cold Spring Harbor, Great Neck North and South, Jericho, Oyster Bay, Roslyn and Friends Academy, a private school member of Section VIII — had to cancel junior varsity teams for the same reason, Pizzarelli said.
Great Neck was forced to combine its two high schools just to field a varsity football team.
David Zawatson, Great Neck district’s athletic director, played in the NFL from 1989 to ’91 for three teams, including the Jets in 1990.
“The feedback we’re getting from parents, head injuries are a concern,” he said. “It’s a difficult thing to dispel and put to ease about. Obviously it’s concerning. Any reasonable adult would have questions.”
Football and CTE
The National Football League acknowledged the link between football and the potential for long-term damage from head injuries for the first time in 2009 after several accounts of high-profile former players dealing with neurological issues such as dementia.
Dr. Bennet Omalu is credited with discovering chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative neurological condition that is the result of repeated hits to the head. Omalu first published a study in 2005 in the academic journal Neurosurgery that showed the links between football and CTE.
That study showed evidence of CTE in the brain of former Pittsburgh Steelers player Mike Webster, who suffered from dementia before his death in 2002 at age 50.
Omalu believes nobody under the age of 18 should play tackle football because their brains are still forming.
“It’s the definition of child abuse,” he said at a New York Press Club event in August. “If your child plays football, there is a 100 percent risk exposure. There is nothing like making football safer. That’s a misnomer.”
A study by researchers at Boston University published in September was the first to link youth tackle football with brain issues later in life. The study reported that a survey of 214 former football players, with the average age of 51, showed that playing tackle football before age 12 increased the risk for neurological issues later in life. It said players with tackle football experience had twice “the risk of problems with behavioral regulation, apathy and executive function” and three times the risk of depression.
One of the study’s authors, neurology professor Robert Stern, who is the director of clinical research at Boston University’s CTE Center, said children should not be playing tackle football before high school.
“I think it just makes common sense that children, whose brains are rapidly developing, should not be hitting their heads over and over again,” Stern said. “Inside those heads is the most precious organ in the body.”
A downward trend
Newsday analyzed football participation numbers in middle schools and high schools on Long Island and throughout New York for eight of the last 15 years. Those figures came from annual surveys performed by New York State Public High School Athletic Association. The athletic association did not conduct surveys every year, accounting for the missing years of data.
Newsday also analyzed 15 years of national high school football participation numbers from annual surveys conducted by National Federation of State High School Associations, which is the rule-making body for high school sports nationally.
No national participation numbers exist for middle school football.
Newsday also obtained participation trends for youth football ages 5-12 from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, a trade organization that tracks youth sports participation rates.
Among the findings:
- There were 8,082 high school football players at 121 schools last year, down from 8,806 at 120 schools in 2009. That’s an 8.2 percent drop.
- Districts reported 4,944 middle school players last year. That’s down from 6,567 players in 2009, representing a 24.7 percent decrease.
- No participation numbers exist for the overall landscape of youth football — ages 6 through 12 — on Long Island. Some coaches estimate participation is down around 30 percent since 2009. That’s consistent with national figures. Tackle football participation for those ages has dropped 28 percent nationally since 2009, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.
Although the decrease in Long Island participation figures are consistent with the nationwide figures published annually by National Federation of High School State Associations, local school officials say concerns over concussions are not the only reason behind the drop in play here. They cite Long Island’s overall declining population and the rise in athletes preferring to focus on one sport as other reasons for football’s decline.
But they are confident concern over head injuries is the primary reason.
Should I let my kid play football?
Like a lot of parents, Suzanne Downes of Huntington had doubts about letting her two young sons play football. She said she intentionally pushed off the decision for a few years after they started asking for permission to play.
“It wasn’t so much out of concern for concussions, just much more along the lines of it being a rough sport,” she said. “And I thought, ‘How am I going to sit there on the sidelines and watch this?’ ”
She decided to allow her sons — Ryan, 10, and Timothy, 8 — to play and has no regrets.
“I love what it teaches my kids,” she said. “All of these boys get on the field and give 100 percent, and they’re learning discipline, focus, how to be prideful of their equipment, their teams, themselves.”
Downes also joined the board of directors of the Huntington Youth Football League and is the team mom for both of her sons’ teams. She said she’s spoken to numerous parents who were apprehensive about letting their sons play football. She said she tells them about the benefits of the game, how her sons have never had a concussion, and how she’s comforted by the amount of equipment they wear, virtually from head to toe.
Still, plenty of parents are choosing to steer their children away from tackle football.
Catherine Cole of Farmingdale said her son, Michael, 17, is a varsity baseball and basketball player at Plainview-Old Bethpage JFK High School, but football was probably his strongest sport. Around the time the first stories about head trauma and football were emerging, she said she and her husband encouraged Michael to focus on baseball and basketball.
“There were mothers who thought I was nuts,” she said. “They told me, ‘Oh, come on, it’s only football.’ But if I had a little one now, I think I would be more strict and say, ‘You’re absolutely not playing football.’ ”
More kids playing flag football
Football officials are hopeful that while tackle football numbers are on the decline, other versions of football are showing a steady increase in participation. The hope is that kids can learn the basics of the game and transition to tackle football when they reach high school.
Flag football is a version of two-hand touch football, in which defenders simply have to make contact with the ballcarrier instead of tackling him. In flag football, each player wears a flag attached at the waist. Players wear shorts and T-shirts rather than helmets and shoulder pads. Defenders must grab the ball carrier’s flag to stop forward progress, so contact is limited.
At Holbrook’s Sachem Sports Club, one of Long Island’s biggest town-based youth programs, participation in tackle football is down from about 800 in 2010 to 240 this year, according Terence Dee, the club’s vice president.
Dee said the flag football program is thriving, with around 400 players.
“We want to find those kids who want to play football and this is their entryway into it,” he said. “Mom and Dad get comfortable with it and then they give tackle a try.”
Christopher Klug of Holbrook said it’s important for his 8-year-old son, Ethan, to be active in sports. But Klug said he and his wife “are a little apprehensive about letting him play tackle football at this time with all that we know right now. It’s just not in the cards as of now.”
Flag football, Klug said, “is just a safer bet.”
Klug said his son has been playing since the Sachem program began a few years ago, and while Dad loves the exercise it provides, his son loves the fun of it.
“He’s always really amped up to come to practice and games,” Klug said. “He’s totally into it, really looking forward to it all the time.”
Half Hollow Hills West High School varsity football coach Kyle Madden believes flag football may be the best entryway into playing tackle football in a few years.
“In tackle you see kids wearing this heavy helmet and they can’t get out of their stance,” he said. “For a 5-, 6-, 7- or 8-year-old who just wants to throw, catch and carry the ball, it’s the best alternative ever. And maybe in sixth or seventh grade you start introducing them tackle football.”
Rookie tackle is another alternative
Suffolk’s Police Athletic League is one of only about a dozen leagues nationwide piloting a new trimmed-down version of tackle football for the youngest players.
Called “rookie tackle,” boys ages 5 through 8 are playing tackle football, but with six, seven or eight players on each side of a shortened field, which is roughly one-third the size of a regular football field.
Instead of starting in a three-point stance — with one hand on the ground — players start each play standing up, potentially eliminating more head contact.
Anthony Williams, president of Suffolk Football PAL, likened it to baseball players starting out by playing T-ball. He said kids are having more fun because there is more action taking place on the field.
“The kids are more active because they feel capable of chasing down the ball carrier from the other side on a smaller field,” he said. While it’s still tackle football, with full contact and equipment, Williams said, “I think they’re gaining a better understanding of the game.”
Some schools eye 8-on-8
In response to declining participation, seven high school teams in the Syracuse area are playing eight-player football as opposed to the traditional 11-player game. Long Island athletic directors see this as a viable option in the coming years if the downward participation trend persists.
Joe Vasile-Cozzo, the East Hampton athletic director, said he has already made it clear to Suffolk County officials that East Hampton would be interested in fielding an eight-player football team — with the goal of using it as a platform to keep the program alive while rebuilding the numbers to field an 11-player team again.
“It’s a start. It’s real football,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking when you tell kids you can’t play. It was very hard to do.
“Football is a big deal. It affects the community. Homecoming has a different feel. For a community like ours that has a proud tradition that just can’t field a team right now, it’s a big deal.”
PLAYING FOOTBALL WHILE LIMITING CONTACT
While parents are steering their kids away from tackle football, alternatives to the game are emerging. Football administrators concerned about the future of football hope that players can still participate in the game at a young age before transitioning to tackle by the time they reach high school.
Flag football: Played in shorts and T-shirts by boys and girls typically between ages 5 and 12, the game emphasizes running, catching and passing the football. There’s no tackling. Instead, defenders stop a ball carrier’s progress by grabbing his or her flag, which is worn around the waist. The game has seen a rise in popularity among parents who don’t want their kids playing tackle.
Rookie tackle: Considered football’s version of tee-ball, teams are made up of six, seven or eight players ages 5 through 8. The field is about a third the size of a typical field. It’s still considered contact football, with players wearing pads and helmets, but coaches say the kids have more fun because having fewer players on the field allows for more action.
Eight-on-eight: Football is usually 11-on-11, but this scaled down version of the game is making a comeback. Seven high schools in the Syracuse area are giving it a try, and it could make its way to Long Island if numbers continue to drop. The rules are the same as tackle football, but it’s played with fewer linemen, and, as a result, there is less hitting at the start of plays. There also is more open field, which can lead to more scoring.