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Volume 20 No. 42
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Safety a big part of NFL’s youth game plan

As youth football participation dipped in recent years, media reports commonly positioned the decline as an existential threat to pro football: If parents wouldn’t let their sons play because of fear of head injuries, where would future generations of NFL fans come from?

While the NFL likely would always have a steady supply of players without lifting a finger, the league has not stood still on youth initiatives. Last year, it announced a $45 million grant to USA Football, which sets standards and provides training for youth leagues, including a tackling technique labeled Heads Up Football. The NFL Foundation, meanwhile, has granted millions of dollars in recent years to causes ranging from free equipment to turf

for fields.

“Football is sort of a cultural touchstone,” said Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president of health and safety policy. “It is part of who we are as a country, and as a league we understand there is a responsibility there to continue to foster that position.”

The league is spending $2 million to send athletic trainers into schools to educate teachers and gym instructors on the game. The league also is spending $1 million on flag football. This year the league expects 1 million children in elementary schools to play flag football, double the number from last year.

That trainer program is in conjunction with Pop Warner, one of the largest youth leagues in the country. Pop Warner

The league has partnered with USA Football, which promotes safety-based initiatives such as Heads Up Football.
Photo by: USA Football
Executive Director Jon Butler described the NFL relationship as very cooperative. In fact, next year Pop Warner and USA Football are coordinating their national meetings around the February NFL combine in Indianapolis, Butler said.

Butler and Scott Hallenbeck, executive director of USA Football, each said the decline in youth participation has leveled off, and in some cases, like high school football, is now climbing.

Whether participation is down or flat, the emphasis on safety has heightened the need for better coaching and protocols. That is not always easy in youth football, which Hallenbeck described as the most fragmented of youth sports. There are 9,500 youth football organizations, Hallenbeck said. Pop Warner, perhaps the most recognizable brand in youth football, represents about 15 percent of the market.

USA Football is working to promote and teach its standards to these groups, and Hallenbeck said 6,200 organizations now use Heads Up Football tackling (basically tackling by not leading with one’s helmet).

“There are dynamic behavior changes,” Hallenbeck said, that are resulting in injury declines at the youth level.