Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Well Played, Pop Warner

I've been wondering for months how organized football was going to respond to the avalanche of data now emerging about concussions and CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy). Football isn't the only sport with this problem, but it certainly appears to have the biggest problem.

Today, I saw this (rare link to an ESPN story, which I found linked from another, less annoying, site):
In a move that challenges the longtime culture of America's most popular game, Pop Warner will introduce new rules to limit contact drills to one-third of practice time, and ban full-speed, head-on blocking and tackling drills in which players line up more than 3 yards apart.

If you're wondering if that "full-speed, head-on" drill has a name, it certainly does: it's called The Nutcracker. In the one season I played football, it was the drill the coaches absolutely loved. It helped them find out who was "a pussy" (their words).

I was eleven. And I guess I was a pussy.

Here's more:
Coaches will be allowed no more than 40 minutes of contact during a practice, or one-third of total practice time each week. The term "contact" means any drill or scrimmage in which players go all-out with contact, such as one-on-one blocking or tackling drills.

The second rule change prohibits full-speed, head-on blocking or tackling drills in which players line up more than 3 yards apart. Having two linemen in stances immediately across from the line of scrimmage from each other is allowed, according to Pop Warner rules. Coaches may conduct full-speed drills in which the players approach each other at an angle, but not straight ahead into each other. And there should be no head-to-head contact.

I certainly never expected anything associated with football to be progressive, so this is pretty damn impressive. Here's the official explanation of why these actions were taken:
"There are times when people and organizations have to evolve, and this is that time," said Dr. Julian Bailes, a neurosurgeon and chair of the Pop Warner Medical Advisory Board. "For the future of the sport, we need to morph it now and take the unnecessary head contact out of the game. If parents were considering allowing their child to play football, this (move) should assure them."

The oldest and largest national youth football organization, Pop Warner adds the rules on the heels of several studies highlighting the health risks in youth football. A Virginia Tech study published this year showed that some hits among second graders pack as much force as those seen at the college level. Last year, researchers also discovered a deceased teenage player suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative disease of the brain generally associated with athletes who experience repetitive hits to the head.

Bailes said his committee was particularly swayed by research suggesting that brains can be damaged not only from the big hits seen more commonly at the high school and adult levels but from smaller, more repetitive, sub-concussive blows experienced by players at all levels. Also, he said, most head injuries happen in practice.

Even if you argue (and you could) that this is a decision made entirely out of self-interest, it doesn't negate the clear benefits.

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