From youth football to the professional NFL ranks, football safety has become the paramount concern for every league across the United States. Despite ongoing narratives that participation is declining and kids are falling away from the game, football is actually becoming safer than ever. Football is a rite of passage that teaches values like team building and hard work at a level that can’t be duplicated in other sports.
With the help of a lot of data and comprehensive overhauls to how the game is taught from a young age, the once hard-nosed, macho sport is becoming faster, smoother and an all-around better game to play. Here are five facts to help you feel comfortable making the decision to let your child play football.
1. Participation Remains Stronger Than Ever
When someone says that tackle football participation is declining in recent years, that’s not a false claim, but it is wildly inaccurate when you step back and look at the big picture.
The National Federation of High School Associations (NFHS) conducts the most comprehensive study of participation across all high school athletics every year since 1969 when 13,959 high schools reported 853,537 kids participated in high school football.
From 2009 through the 2017 school year, the number of high school football participants across the country dropped by about 6.5 percent with 1,039,079 kids still playing 11-man football last year. That number is also supported by the fact that 6-man, 8-man, and 9-player football participation has increased across all areas, both in the number of schools fielding those teams and the total number of kids playing. Participation is still strong throughout the last decade and continues to rise as schools adapt how the game is played.
2. The Girls are Thriving
The first time schools reported female participation in 11-man football was in 1980, when two schools reported that 85 girls were playing football. In 2017, there were 735 schools across the country reporting that 2,401 high school girls were playing some form of high school football.
For those counting at home, that means there’s been a 192 percent increase over the last decade among female participation in high school football. The NFL released data in 2020 that showed 47 of 50 states “saw an increase in the percentage of girls who play high school tackle football in 2018 compared to a decade ago.”
With shifting narratives about how powerful the female voice is, these numbers illuminate that not only do girls across the country WANT to play football, but they are out there winning both Homecoming Queen and kicking game-winning field goals in the process.
An older generation may disagree, but football isn’t just for the boys anymore.
3. Safety is Changing the Game
With added concern about the safety of the game, especially at the Pop Warner and middle school levels, there have been several innovations to teach proper techniques of the game while still keeping the competitive nature of the sport in tact for youth football players.
Flex Football: This 9 versus 9 iteration at the youth level includes skill position players like the quarterback and wide receivers, while incorporating offensive and defensive lineman as well. The difference from traditional football, though, is in the gear players wear. Kids wear padded helmets, chest protectors and mouth guards, which allows them to learn to block and protect themselves the right way, but tackling is done with a Velcro belt, just like flag football. The game is fast and physical, but it teaches proper technique without the threat of head-on collisions for young kids.
Safety-Certified Coaches: USA Football introduced the Heads Up Football campaign in 2012 to help train leaders in youth football all the way through high school coaches about proper tackling techniques and drills. These certifications now exist in more than 7,000 football programs across the country and address key safety issues through specially tailored drills and exercises to keep the game safe without losing the core behind the game.
In addition to training about proper drilling, Concussion Recognition and Response has become a key pillar of the USA Football initiative. Football coaches and administrators are being trained on how to handle symptoms of a head injury with mandatory removals from games in youth football leagues, as well as immediate treatment by medical staffs and athletic trainers who will be present at every contest.
4. Football Teaches Core Values
When I was in high school, I played for a high school football team that went 0-27 over the three seasons I played varsity football. I’m not kidding; our team didn’t win a single game. Regardless of how we fared on the scoreboard, some of my best friends to this day were on those teams, and they voted me as their team captain my senior year. Summer workouts, post-practice dance battles and bus rides home from road games built bonds that will stand the test of time.
Anyone who played the sport growing up can back up values like teamwork, communication, and work ethic that they learned playing high school football. While it would’ve been nice to hoist a state championship trophy, I can look back on my football career and know that what we went through during 100-degree August days helped me learn traits like perseverance and determination that I wouldn’t have traded for the world. The values learned in football don’t translate to other team sports because there’s just something different about being a football player.
5. Science is Refining Protective Equipment
The primary concern of parents is the potential for long-term brain damage as a result of playing youth football too early. Effects of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease, continue to scare parents away from the game. While there are obvious concerns that come with football, organizations are using analytics and scientific testing to make the game safer, limit concussions and prevent brain injury on a massive scale.
The National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) regulates the standards for each and every helmet in American football. Every two years, football helmets are reconditioned to meet NOCSAE standard. Since 1995, the organization has donated more than $10 million to fund research into helmet safety, while other innovations are proving to be beneficial in making helmets unique and specific to every type of player at any level.
In 2018, Seattle-based VICIS paired with Artefact to create the ZERO1 football helmet. The helmet combines safety, aesthetics, and functionality into a futuristic helmet that could change the way every football player is protected on the field. Check out details about the game-changing helmet here.
The sport is far from perfect. Sure, contact sports always come with their risks. High school football players from Wisconsin to New Jersey and beyond have suffered serious injuries on the gridiron.
There are a lot of advancements that have yet to be discovered, but football is changing at full speed faster than people can turn and run away from it. From rule changes that protect NFL players to proper instruction that lowers the risk of injury in youth tackle football, the game is becoming something much different from the dangerous game it used to be.
Parents, letting your young athletes play tackle football should be an easy choice. If young players want to play in a youth sports football league, educate yourself, get involved, talk with your local organizations about proper instruction and coaching, and help make the America’s most popular sport thrive for years to come.