Is It Time to Change Youth Football?

Phil Rossi
Pop Warner FootballBen Hershey/Unsplash

A new vision for America’s game

Over the last half-century, the popularity of American football has exploded. These days, the sport appears to have replaced baseball as the country’s favorite pastime.

Both the NFL and the NCAA have watched their reach and bottom lines expand exponentially. From the creation of streaming platforms to online gambling. Television coverage and added programming on national, regional, and cable channels continue to grow each year. Factor in the fantasy leagues, podcasts, and digital media landscape, the sport’s popularity, and personal engagement appears boundless, if not infinitive.

Along with the NFL’s domestic popularity, the invitation to host games in foreign countries has added to its global presence. With all of this happening, what could possibly go wrong? What dark forces are lurking beneath the surface?

A parade of naysaying voices proclaims that the sport’s popularity is a mirage. That American football is in decline. Rotting and breaking down, from the inside out. Invisible to the naked eye, record TV ratings, and the multi-millions doled out in player contracts.

The naysayers make valid points. Statistics prove that registration numbers for youth football are decreasing each year. High school football is also feeling this crunch. Across the country, and hidden from the Friday Night Lights culture, countless high school programs have begun to cease play.

Well before Covid, high schools have begun canceling football seasons due to a lack of players. Other towns have taken a more collaborative approach by combining programs in order to field one joint team.

Meanwhile, American parents are searching for alternative sports. Activities that are safer with lesser risk for brain and bodily harm than football.

Soccer, along with traveling baseball, ice hockey, and basketball leagues have sprung up and begun to fill this void. Due to the time demands of longer and added seasons, these travel leagues are beating football in the numbers war.

The NFL is aware of these trending developments. A popularity crisis that could catch up to them in the future—a prognosis the naysayers have predicted. For those that love the game and want to see it survive and prosper, there needs to be a bold vision. A newer and improved model.

It might be time to radically change youth football. Not so much as in the rules of football itself, but how it is introduced and taught to youngsters. At this stage, football doesn’t need to be a game of brute force and survival. Football has a great opportunity to shed its violent image and to repackage itself.

Instead of leagues and competition, why not institute clinics? Programs where kids could learn the fundamentals and skill positions. There are many finesse aspects of football that are often overlooked due to the physical nature of the game.

Besides teaching the basics, clinics could provide fun. Instead of placing kids in roles and positions that normally stick, why not instruct every enrolled kid how to pass, catch, and kick?

At this stage, football needn’t be about niche positions and role development. Converting practices into a clinic will also remove the ‘assignment’ aspect of learning the sport.

At this age, it shouldn’t be about positions and playing time. The emphasis should shift to participation in lieu of competition. Rather than winning and losing, youth football should be about inclusion, learning, and participation.

Instead of making the kid with the best arm the quarterback, why not teach every enrolled child the essence and mechanics of the position? Footwork, arm angle, and how to properly handle, aim, and throw a football?

Youth football shouldn’t be about finding and developing the next Patrick Mahomes at the expense of everyone else. Instead, make it a goal for each kid to feel like Patrick Mahomes. Advanced clinics, specialized camps, and personal coaches are currently available for the more talented, ambitious, and promising youngsters should they decide to go that route.

Clinics could also provide a hands-on approach where everyone learns how to kick, punt, and run pass patterns. How to block, blitz, and snap a football. In turn, every child will learn and experience all 22 positions plus all of those on the special teams, i.e. the punting and placekicking squads.

In this environment, kids will enjoy the freedom of finding the positions they prefer to play. This angle will keep them motivated and engaged. Clinics could also emphasize and reinforce teamwork by displaying how the different positions fit in and collaborate with the greater good of the team.

One of the reasons kids are held back by parents is fear of permanent injury. This model proposes that all underage programs beneath the high school level will be playing flag football. This will eliminate tackling and other violent collisions.

The players in these games would still be outfitted in helmets, full pads, and uniforms. This will enable the children to remain safe in case of falling while simulating the football experience.
Pop Warner FootballBen Hershey/Unsplash

Along with the dwindling registration numbers, how many children are opting out of youth football? It’s easy for kids to become disenchanted and to lose interest altogether. The underdeveloped children who are routinely skipped over and neglected often quit.

Children could still learn how to function and progress in a meritocracy setting, as long as they’re being nurtured. They’re still children. Not to mention that guidance, support, and encouragement are among the benchmarks of the best and greatest coaching. It’s a win-win for all involved. The kids, the coaches, the parents, and the game itself.

On the high school level, four 12-minute quarters could be replaced with 10-minute quarters or two 20-minute halves. Altering the game clock will reduce the number of plays from scrimmage. The results will be lower injury rates without compromising the game’s integrity.

Another way for high schools to alleviate injuries is to eliminate kickoffs. The kickoff remains a very dangerous play. Players on the kickoff team get a running start as the receiving team remains stationary — waiting for the advanced football to land.

In the meantime, the opposing players have reached a full sprint— racing straight for the fielded football. The violence in the ensuing collisions is horrific, despite the padding and helmets.

In both the NFL and college, all of the players are fully grown men. In these games, the kicker’s legs are much stronger. Most kickoffs sail beyond the end zone — what is called a ‘touchback’, thus eliminating a return. Since the fielding team is unable to return the kickoff, the play is ended. Instead, their offensive unit takes over at the 25-yard line.

Many high school kickers don’t possess the leg strength to kick the ball that far. In turn, most kickoffs feature these collisions. Factor in the age group, differing growth patterns, and stages of physical and neurological development, it’s easy to compute the injury rates.

Why not have high school football remove the kickoff, already declaring it a touchback? High school football could automatically begin at the 20, 25, or 30-yard line.

High schools could also lengthen their half-times. This will help the swelling to go down on bruised and injured players. The extra time will also provide medical staff the ability to better evaluate and treat more players.

No matter how grown and physical high school players seem, they’re underage and are still developing. Besides the brain, a bevy of other and various internals remains at risk. Organs, bones, and a still-fragile nervous system. All of these and many others are a gateway for permanent injury.
High School Football GameMuyuan Ma/Unsplash

In some of the more popular areas, as in Friday Night Lights country, there will be pushback. This is expected if not guaranteed. It’s in these parts where high school football is cultural, customary, and sacred. A rite of passage and plausible opportunity for scholarships, careers, and beyond.

Fair enough. If these changes are refused on the varsity level, why not institute them for junior varsity and freshman football? At the high school level, there’s a big difference between 14 and 15-year-old bodies in comparison to the more developed boys between the ages of 16 and 17.

Despite football’s popularity, it could use a reset at the grassroots level. As it stands, the NFL is able to pay its way out of trouble. To clear obstacles and settle lawsuits with their almighty dollars. All this, while growing their brand, reach, and bottom line.

This proposal is more about the connection economy than the consumer one. Yet, a prudent investment. The benefits to youth football could pay dividends for years.

If you're a parent, a fan of the game, or both, what do you think?

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Phil is a blogger interested in sports, culture, politics, and the art scene.

Hackensack, NJ

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