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We Need to Make Football Safer: USA Today Op-Ed

Physical contact will always be a part of football. But we should be able to better manage it.

Gilbert ChandlerThe kickoff can be one of the most exciting plays in football. It can also be one of the most dangerous. Ellis Hobbs knows both perspectives.

When he returned a kickoff 108 yards for a touchdown in 2007, it not only helped his Patriots beat the rival Jets, it temporarily set the record for the longest kick return in NFL history.

Three years later, Hobbs was playing for the Philadelphia Eagles when he tried to break free for another game-changing return against the New York Giants. Like any good returner, he kept an eye out for the most dangerous tackler on the other team.

“I broke a tackle and then lost my balance, and I lost (sight of) that dangerous guy,” Hobbs said. “Then I just braced for the impact.” His night, season and career ended on that play.

Even though it represents less than 6% of all plays in a game, the kickoff accounts for more than 23% of concussions, according to a review by the Ivy League.

So beginning next month when the season gets underway, Pop Warner will become the first national program to eliminate kickoffs. Instead, the ball will be placed at the 35-yard line to start each half and after each score for our three youngest divisions, where players range in age from five to 10 years old. Following the season, we will review the results as we consider implementing the change across all levels.

When we announced the move earlier this spring, many passionately questioned whether the nation’s oldest youth football organization was committing heresy by removing what could be considered an essential part of the game. They demanded to know why we were making such a dramatic move. Our answer is simple. We’re making the game safer and, ultimately, better for the young people who love football.

Since Walter Camp began shaping the sport 140 years ago, football has been built on an exhilarating balance of speed, grace and power. The game has always been unavoidably physical, from a defensive tackle breaking through a mass of blockers or a safety dislodging the ball from a wide receiver in the back of the end zone.

Removing contact entirely would strip away the essence of tackle football. But as a sport, we should be able to better manage the physical contact. When the NFL moved the kickoff up five yards in 2011, it reduced the number of both returns and concussions. According to the league, concussions reported on kickoffs decreased by 43% from the previous year. Guess what? No one stopped watching on Sundays.

Concern surrounding the association between repeated head trauma and long-term health concerns increased ten years ago, as a number of retired NFL legends began experiencing neurological issues. In response, researchers and clinicians began to look at head trauma and the attitude that surrounded it.

For years the culture in football and other sports celebrated those who “shook it off” and kept playing, ignoring or downplaying the consequences. “You just got your bell rung. Shake it off and get back in the game.” Fortunately, we know better now and a new era of safety is evolving.

In 2010, Pop Warner created an independent medical advisory committee, led by neurosurgeons, sports medicine professionals and researchers, to guide us on health and safety issues. This committee has been instrumental in advancing Pop Warner’s groundbreaking changes, including the first concussion rule in national youth sports, mandating that all players with a suspected head injury are examined and cleared by a qualified concussion specialist before returning to play.

We also now restrict the amount of contact to only 25% of total practice time and we have banned full-speed, head-on blocking and tackling drills where players lined up three yards apart. On top of that, we have mandated Heads Up Football coaching education to complement our changes. Eliminating kickoff is the latest advance.

Ultimately, preserving football means we have to change it. On fields across America this fall, we believe we are making the sport safer and better for those who play it at the youngest ages.

Jon Butler is executive director of Pop Warner Little Scholars, the oldest national football organization in the USA.