Researchers who studied concussions in youth football say the Pop Warner organization got it wrong last year when it limited contact in practices.
by Gary Mihoces, USA TODAY Sports
PITTSBURGH – Researchers who studied concussions in youth football say the Pop Warner organization got it wrong last year when it limited contact in practices.
Julian Bailes, chair of Pop Warner youth football’s medical advisory board, defends the policy and says critics are sending a “bad message” to players, coaches and parents.
“We’re not going to repeal it. I think the article was erroneous in its conclusions and not the right message,” says Bailes, a neurosurgeon with the NorthShore University HealthSystem in Chicago. “So we’re not going to repeal it in Pop Warner. We’re steadfast.”
Pop Warner, based in Langhorne, Pa., had about 275,000 youth players nationwide. Last season, it introduced new rules on hitting in practice, including a rule that no more than one-third of practice time be devoted to full speed contact.
In college football, the Pac-12 Conference also recently announced it would be introducing as yet unspecified limits on practice contact.
Released this week, the study by the University of Pittsburgh and its medical center followed 468 players ages 8-12 during the 2011 season in the Pittsburgh area and central Pennsylvania. It found they were 26 times more likely to be concussed in games than in practices.
“Instead of reducing contact practice time, youth football leagues should focus on awareness and education about concussions. We believe that practice is when tackling technique can be taught and reinforced in a much safer environment than in games,” says principal investigator Anthony Kontos, assistant research director for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center sports concussion program.
Bailes has a different view.
“I think it’s a bad message for players and parents and coaches to think that it doesn’t matter, that you should go back and hit head to head and hit your brain as many times as you can in practice … and if you don’t you won’t learn proper technique,” he says.
During a concussion conference in Pittsburgh on Saturday, Kontos said that wasn’t what he said.
“We don’t want more head-to-head contact. What we want is more contact practices where we teach proper technique to avoid head-to-head collisions in games,” Kontos said. “And if we don’t have good practices to teach that, we’re sending kids out unprepared to make those tackles.”
Kontos said Pop Warner made a “well-intended” decision.
“They, just like all of us, want to prevent this injury in youth. The only thing we’re arguing about is we need to make decisions that are evidence-based,” Kontos said. “We need to have research driving our decisions rather than traditional knee-jerk, media kind of response.”
While Bailes questioned the size of the study sample (of 20 diagnosed concussions, 18 occurred in games), he did not dispute that more concussions occur in games.
“I’m glad concussions aren’t occurring in practice. They tried to make a distinctive point of that. … We’ve always known that. … That’s nothing new,” Bailes says. “But to think more hitting your brain is good for you or doesn’t make any difference if you do it in practice is asinine.”
Kontos: “Which is not what I said.”