Posted: 3:41 pm Friday, June 15th, 2012

Pop Warner changes rules to try to protect young players from concussions 

By Matt Porter

As evidence piles up concerning the danger of head injuries in contact sports, the most popular youth football league in America is making a change.

(Bruce Bennett/The Palm Beach Post)

(Bruce Bennett/The Palm Beach Post)

Pop Warner football announced this week it will 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 three yards from each other.

The rules take effect in August, when the season begins. Pop Warner is the first nationwide football league to limit contact between players.

“The science shows that this should be done,” Dr. Julian Bailes, chairman of the Pop Warner medical advisory board and co-director of the NorthShore Neurological Institute in Illinois, told The New York Times. “We think right off the bat that with this change we can eliminate 60-plus percent of the brain impacts or concussions.”

In Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast, more than 3,000 kids play in the Treasure Coast Pop Warner Conference, a group of 21 town-based programs from Boca Raton to Pahokee to Vero Beach. It is the largest organization in the area.

Gary Byerly, president of the Treasure Coast Pop Warner Conference, said he agreed with the change.

“I think it’s something that has to happen,” said Byerly.

He said the TCPWC places a high emphasis on proper technique and player safety. A new head coach must complete training and attend an in-person clinic. Helmets must be refurbished at least every two years.

What the organization doesn’t have — like few youth football organizations do — is a concussion reporting system. Injuries are reported to Pop Warner through an injured player’s individual insurance company. Byerly estimates his program had two players suffer concussions last year.

In calling for less practice time, Bailes said his committee was particularly swayed by research suggesting that brains can be damaged not only from the big hits in games but from smaller, more repetitive blows experienced by players at all levels. Most head injuries happen in practice, he said.

Last year, the Ivy League limited its schools to two full-contact practices per week during the season, three fewer than the NCAA’s limit.

While the NFL’s concussion problem is increasingly reported, the effect of head hits on developing brains isn’t fully understood. A recent Virginia Tech-Wake Forest study showed that some hits among 2nd graders are as forceful to those players as what college players receive.

Last year, researchers at Boston University found a deceased 18-year-old athlete suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative disease of the brain generally associated with athletes who experience repetitive hits to the head. That was the earliest instance of CTE ever recorded by the university, which has found the disorder in more than 50 deceased athletes.

Nationwide, more than 285,000 children ages 5 to 15 play in Pop Warner football leagues. The program says it has produced more than two-thirds of current NFL players.

“Football isn’t a dangerous sport, not more than any other sport,” said Bill Powers, president of the Jupiter Tequesta Athletic Association’s Pop Warner program, which has approximately 500 players from ages 5 to 14. “If this gives parents some peace of mind, that’s good.”

The New York Times contributed to this report.