For Eddie Mason, the decision wasn’t difficult.
Mr. Mason’s decision wasn’t a result of the burgeoning national discussion about football’s role in brain injuries. Instead, he believes children should learn the game’s fundamentals without tackling. Mr. Mason, who played three seasons at linebacker for the Redskins before retiring in 2003, sees a problematic culture infecting football’s lowest levels that’s inextricably connected to the safety concerns.
“This brash kind of mindset, the underdog mindset,” Mr. Mason said, “this hard-core attitude kind of deal about who hits the hardest [is part of the issue]. If you look back over the last eight to 10 years, players showing up in the NFL are technically unsound. We’re eight to 10 years behind developing fundamentals for how to play the sport.
“Compound all these factors into one lump and it’s just a bomb about to explode.”
That’s already started. As mild traumatic brain injury and chronic traumatic encephalopathy have become household phrases, participation in the country’s most popular sport has slumped.
During the 2012-13 season, boys’ participation in 11-player high school football declined to the lowest level since 2005-06, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Football, however, remained the most popular high school sport.
USA Football, an umbrella organization partially funded by the NFL, estimated the number of children ages 6 to 14 playing tackle football decreased from 3 million in 2010 to 2.8 million in 2011. The National Sporting Goods Association reported that tackle football numbers dropped 11 percent since 2011.
And participation in the country’s largest youth football organization, Pop Warner, declined 9.5 percent from 2010 to 2012, as first reported by ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.”
“There’s a natural ebb and flow in the popularity of sports but I do think that the concern about concussions, concern about the brain injuries, is also a major cause for concern in parents,” said Dr. Julian Bailes, co-director of NorthShore University HealthSystem’s Neurological Institute in Evanston, Ill., and Pop Warner’s chief medical officer.
Added neurologist Dr. Robert Cantu: “I think that’s purely a reaction to parents becoming aware of both post-concussion syndrome and later-life consequences.”
Sorting out the future
The drop comes as 4,843 former NFL players, according to a count by The Washington Times, sue the league over brain injuries. The plaintiffs include Mr. Mason plus 36 living and deceased members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A proposed $765 million settlement reached in August hasn’t been filed in federal court for approval. At least six concussion-related lawsuits have been filed against the NCAA, too.
But football’s long-term future is being sorted out by parents and their children on fields far from television cameras and big-money contracts and stories about some former professional players struggling with post-football health.
A survey released earlier this month by the Robert Morris University Polling Institute showed 40.5 percent of respondents supported a ban on children playing tackle football before high school. Almost half of respondents (49.3 percent) would encourage their children or others to wait until high school before starting tackle football.