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Feature Story

March 2016


Managing Concussion Risk: Communities Switch From Contact to Flag Football

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By Dave Ramont

Throughout the 1970s, NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Ken Stabler was known for his late, come-from-behind drives. Nicknamed "The Snake," he led the Oakland Raiders to a Super Bowl in 1977. Stabler died from cancer this past July, and researchers just revealed that he also had a chronic brain disease linked to head trauma. This news coincided with an NFL report that concussions rose 30 percent in 2015, to a total of 271. That's the highest number in four years, despite a tougher concussion protocol compiled by the NFL's Head, Neck, and Spine committee.

News like this is causing many parents to become understandably fearful about letting their kids play contact football. And now there's a growing list of communities nationally making the switch from contact to flag football.

One of these communities is Somerville, Mass. Director of Recreation and Youth Jill Lathan said they made the switch for a couple reasons, including the recent national conversation regarding football-related injuries and deaths. And, while youth football enrollment numbers had decreased, they'd had increased participation in their spring and fall flag football leagues. "Children that like the sport like the sport regardless if it's flag or contact. Therefore, we as a rec department made the decision based on over the past few years, the rise in injuries among kids playing contact football, both in game situations and during regular practices. [It] demonstrates a need for us to reevaluate the programs we offer to our youngest residents," she said.

Lathan also said they met with parents regarding the change, and some wanted to continue the contact football program. Additionally, a few parents were interested in starting an independent board and continuing youth football in Somerville. There is a Pop Warner league in Somerville that offers a contact football program, so that option also exists for kids. Adult flag football leagues are popular there as well.

In December 2015 the movie Concussion was released, bringing even more focus to the issue of football and head trauma. It stars Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered the disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) after performing an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster in 2002. After further research, Omalu embarked on a mission to raise public awareness of CTE, which affects mood, emotions and executive functions.

Soccer is also on the radar of state and federal regulators. For example, the Illinois Youth Soccer Association has recently banned kids ages 10 and under from using their heads to hit balls, in an effort to help protect against concussions.

Lathan pointed out that flag football is a sport all athletes can enjoy while learning the fundamentals of football, without the risk of contact. Regarding the switch, she said, "For us as a rec department we felt like it was a win-win. Children can still play the game of football. However, the high-risk injury component is decreased."


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