- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 12, 2012

CHICAGO (AP) - Pop Warner football players won’t be taking quite as many hits from now on.

The youth organization said it is limiting contact in practice to try and make the game safer for young players starting this year.

It said coaches must limit contact to no more than one-third of their practice time. It is also banning full-speed, head-on blocking or tackling drills in which players line up more than 3 yards apart. The organization says coaches can have full-speed drills where players approach each other at an angle but “not straight ahead into each other.” It also says there should be no head-to-head contact.

The rule changes announced Tuesday were developed by Pop Warner’s medical advisory board as part of its effort to reduce the risk of concussions.

Pop Warner said it is the “first youth sports organization to limit contact in practice.”

The long-term health effects of repeated blows to the head have become a major issue for the NFL, which is being sued by more than 2,000 retirees, and the concern has been trickling down to the lower levels of the games.

Some parents have voiced worry about letting their children play football, and the National Sporting Goods Association and the National Federation of State High School Associations have each recorded very slight declines in participation in recent years _ though doctors are reluctant to declare the changes a trend just yet.

“We have been very vocal on this issue over the past two years because the health and safety of our young players is always our number one priority,” said Pop Warner executive director Jon Butler said. “By instituting these new rules and providing our coaches with proper tackling training and education in concussion awareness and prevention, we aim to equip our members with the tools they need to safely participate in the game they love.”

More than 400,000 children in 43 states along with Scotland, Germany, Russia, Japan and Mexico participate in Pop Warner Little Scholars’ football, cheerleading and dance programs.

Pop Warner’s rule changes are based on research that shows that more concussions occur in practice than during games,” said Dr. Julian Bailes, chairman of the Pop Warner medical advisory board. “The impact of head-to-head contact causes the most severe concussions, so we felt it was imperative that Pop Warner take a proactive approach and limit contact in practices.”