Although football remains the most popular sport in America, more conversations continue about whether the game has lost its luster among the youth due to concerns about player safety.
Del. Jay Walker (D-District 26) of Fort Washington seeks to ensure youth are well-conditioned, have fun and, most importantly, reduce injuries.
Walker, a former standout quarterback at Howard University who played about four years in the NFL, has legislation to limit tackle football in youth and high school sports in Maryland between August and December.
The suggestions, which he sees as a college football analyst for ESPN and one of the leading experts on Black college football, include keeping players in shape through calisthenics, 7-on-7 non-contact drills and other exercises.
“Football games are not meant to be played on a year-round basis,” said Walker, who also conducts color commentary for ESPN and one of the leading experts on Black college football. “If you have kids playing 30 tackle football games a year, that’s crazy. We have to make sure the kids are safe and having fun.”
The legislation notes all high schools and youth organizations “may not offer, approve or sponsor tackle football games for students during the months of January through July.”
When driving around at various parks throughout the D.C. region, some youth can be seen in July wearing football equipment while practicing and tackling in preparation for upcoming seasons.
Although Irvin Hay supports the limited no-tackle policy on a statewide level, he wonders how would it be enforced.
Walker’s legislation, scheduled to be heard before the House of Delegates’ Ways and Means Committee, doesn’t have a provision for what happens if a team is caught allowing children to wear football pads or play tackle football.
As the current athletic director at Potomac High School in Oxon Hill, Hay said football players already schedule its tackle activities between August and December. The school played its final game of the season last month in the state 2A championship game.
“When you look at the numbers and look at various schools, we don’t have as many kids play as we used to playing,” said Hay, who played high school and college football. “Sometimes that is because [of] insufficient coaching. The problem comes with people not understanding the maturation of children. Everybody doesn’t grow at the same particular time and everybody doesn’t have the same particular skills.”
According to a survey released in August by the National Federation of High School Association, about 1,006,013 boys played 11-player tackle football in the 2018-19 school year, down from 1,036,842 from the previous year.
In Maryland, nearly 13,000 boys played high school tackle football two years ago. In comparison, about 12,150 participated in the sport last year.
During those same time frames, the state did see a slight uptick in girls participating in tackle football, from 16 to 24.
The high school federation conducts an annual survey based on responses from members associations to assess participation in a variety of sports, but football remains the most popular and most played. One main reason comes from the number of people who can play on a team that can sometimes triple other team sports such as basketball with an estimated roster of 12 to 15 players.
Various academic studies have been conducted to highlight concussions in football.
CHOC Children’s, a children’s hospital affiliated with the University of California-Irvine, offered recommendations for parents who allow their child to play tackle football.
One major proposal deals with parents knowing concussion laws, which vary from state to state.
“Fewer than half contain all of the key principles, such as limits on full-contact practice, mandatory education about concussion symptoms for coaches, removal of a player from the game if a head injury is suspected, and written medical clearance for return to play,” the hospital said.
Pop Warner, one of the oldest youth organizations in the country, published a video on football safety with actor Alec Baldwin. The organization’s “Play Safer” summary points out that contact in practice has been reduced by 25 percent, kickoffs have been eliminated in its youngest divisions and medical clearance for any player who suffers a head injury must be given by a concussion specialist before returning to play.