Football is America’s favorite game. Each fall, millions of people make their way to watch athletes across all levels compete in one of the most entertaining sports in the world. Although the focus of this industry is on the elite athletes at the college and professional level, the majority of athletes who play football are children.
According to the NCAA, the total number of football student-athletes across all divisions of the NCAA amounts to 73,000. In the NFL, there are 32 teams. Each team is limited to a 53-man roster, which means that there are only about 1,700 active NFL players (not including the practice squad). At the high school level, the National Federation of State High School Associations reports that 1,057,382 high school athletes participate in football each year. Pop Warner, one of the nation’s largest youth football leagues, reports 250,000 participants each year. This means that just one youth league has over three times the participants as the NCAA and NFL combined.
The recent attention to brain trauma over the last 5-10 years has sparked many questions as to the safety of the sport of football. This has led to trends in youth leagues as well as in high school teams that have seen a decrease in participation over the last few years. So, the obvious question is, is it warranted? Should kids be playing youth football? Due to my position as a health care professional who works with collegiate and high school athletics programs, as well as my history of being a collegiate football player at the University of Iowa, I am often asked this very question.
Before I begin, it’s important to elaborate on the age range of the “youth athlete” to which I’m referring. Technically speaking, high school athletics is still youth. For the sake of this article, youth athletes will pertain to children under the age of 12 (6th grade).
Although I have my own opinions and perspectives, I will never tell a parent they are right or wrong for enrolling their child in a contact sport such as football. What I do recommend, however, is that parents ask themselves three important questions before putting their kid into a contact sport:
1. Is it safe?
2. Is it beneficial?
3. Is it enjoyable?