- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2008

Football became this country’s favorite sport without a governing body. Sure, the NCAA has long ruled the college game, and the NFL has been pro league for nearly four decades. But below the less centralized high school football structure lie thousands of youth leagues that developed from the grassroots and remain independent today.

Former Republican vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp, who rose from the sandlots of 1940s Los Angeles to star at quarterback for the 1960s Buffalo Bills, understands that.

“It all depended on coaches and parents who loved children and loved the sport,” he said. “It was done quite well, but it was very spontaneous.”

To get rid of some of that spontaneity and provide some structure, the NFL and its players association created USA Football in 2003 under the guidance of chairman Kemp to help players, coaches and game officials run safe and growing youth football leagues.

“Every other sport played on a professional level had an organization representing it on the grassroots,” said NFL vice president Joe Browne, who serves on USA Football’s board of directors. “Football didn’t. Commissioner [Paul] Tagliabue and [NFL Players Association executive director] Gene Upshaw took $5 million out of our youth football fund to endow USA Football to make sure that the sport stayed strong for decades to come. It’s been money well spent.”

That’s hard to measure until pro stars begin crediting USA Football for a part of their success, but $5 million is chump change for a financial behemoth like the NFL. And the investment has created plenty of goodwill on the lower levels of the sport.

“You want kids to learn proper techniques, and it’s nice to have a benchmark teaching model if you’re starting a league or you’re a parent who wants to coach,” said Todd Bell, media relations director for the American Football Coaches Association, a USA Football affiliate. “The earlier a young man gets proper coaching, the better he’s going to be at the college level.”

Bob Gardner, the chief operating officer for the National Federation of High School Associations - a USA Football affiliate - termed trying to discover how many kids ages 11-14 played youth tackle football a “monumental challenge” because 80 percent of the leagues are independent of prominent organizations like Pop Warner or Boys and Girls Clubs.

USA Football executive director Scott Hallenbeck split the nation into six regions (he expects to redivide into eight regions next year) and assigned each a manager. The managers call high school coaches, recreation department directors and even mayors to learn who runs football in each county.

That research revealed participation in youth tackle football rose from 3 million in 2006 to 3.2 million last fall. Kemp believes between 11 million and 12 million kids play tackle, flag or tag football. That’s good news for football fans, but the fact remains more children - particularly girls - play soccer, and lacrosse is America’s fastest growing sport. Football competes with those sports and others for suburban fields, while there is a dearth of fields in the inner cities.

“The NFL’s youth football arm is rebuilding and refurbishing fields and giving grants to communities and teams for equipment,” said Kemp, who’s on the board of NFL Youth Football. “It’s no secret that football’s an expensive sport [it costs $150-$300 to outfit a youth player]. Showing an interest in urban football leagues can foster the kind of qualities we want to develop in young boys and in this country: competition, leadership and sportsmanship. I don’t think any other sport combines so well the physical with the mental side.”

USA Football also teaches kids how to play the game correctly and safely. To that end, USA Football has education programs for coaches - now mandated by Pop Warner - administrators and game officials to bring structure to the ad hoc youth football system while increasing players’ safety through the teaching of proper technique and equipment use and background checks on coaches.

“We’re very concerned that kids are safe in the field,” Hallenbeck said. “We reach out to administrators who can mandate coaching education, such as our practice planner and our drills library, that make sure they’re executed safely and properly. We work closely with the equipment manufacturers to make sure that we get fitting instructions out there. We have lots of information on our Web site about hydration. If all those safety aspects are followed, the experience will be better, and ultimately more kids will play.”

Which, of course, is USA Football’s ultimate goal. Kemp likes to say “baseball is America’s pastime, but football is America’s passion.”

“We want to broaden the population playing the game [to 4 million by 2013], encourage parents to have the right attitude towards the game, help leagues and teams develop their skills, coaching and officiating in a safe manner and elevate the game of football in our country at every level, demographically and geographically,” Kemp said.

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