Youth football enrollment down since brain disease linked to sport

Global Business

Despite its success, American football has courted controversy. Growing scientific evidence is linking the sport with head injuries causing severe and sometimes deadly side effects.

This is causing some to question the future of the sport.

CGTN’s Karina Huber reports.

In 2016, 3 million kids between the ages of 6 to 18 played organized football in the United States.

The country’s oldest and most well-known youth football organization is Pop Warner headquartered in Langhorne, Pennsylvania.

The league is active in 40 states, but its future could now be in question. Data linking football with a degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, is causing concern among parents.

“A lot of them say ‘is it safe’? And I don’t blame them. I mean, I’m a parent also. I understand that,” Jon Butler, Pop Warner Executive Director said.

Butler said enrollment fell 15 percent over a three-year period starting in 2010. That’s right around the time reports of CTE in former football players first emerged. Since then, enrollment has been flat.

He added youth football is safer now than ever before. The equipment is better and Pop Warner has made many changes to its rules.

The league banned kickoff returns for its youngest players. If coaches suspect the player has a brain injury that player can’t return without a doctor’s approval.

But sports expert Marc Edelman believes despite the changes, the links to CTE are too strong for many parents to overlook.

“I think football might follow a similar course to boxing. As we learned about the long-term risks that come from of boxing and we have Muhammad Ali as a single, very vivid example, less parents have pushed their kids to be involved in boxing at the amateur level, at the high school and junior high level and a lot of schools have gotten rid of boxing,” Edelman said.

Edelman believes football, like boxing, will continue to be attractive to lower-income families who may see the hard-hitting game as a ticket out of poverty. He thinks many higher income families will shy away.

Butler disagrees. He thinks the sport’s many health and character-building benefits will keep enrollment consistent among all income brackets, but admits the recent data is troubling.

“You know, none of us want to cover up anything. Certainly with all of this research going on, we’re all trying to find out what is it really about. How does it happen? Can it be prevented, which nobody thinks it can be 100 percent, how can it be better detected? How can it be better treated?”