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NFL pushes back on youth football “myths”


The NFL continues to fear the impact of a reduced supply of future NFL players. And it shows.

The latest evidence of the league’s concern comes from a list of “myths” and “facts” regarding youth football that was posted on Tuesday by NFL executive V.P. of football operations Troy Vincent.

The full list is here. The league’s obvious goal is to convince people (parents) that playing tackle football at the high school level and lower levels is safe.

The league contends, among other things, that the concussion rate for “youth tackle football” is similar to the concussion rate for other “youth contact sports,” including “soccer, ice hockey, lacrosse, and even flag football,” that participants in varsity high school football from 1956 to 1970 “did not experience an increased risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases compared with athletes engaged in other varsity sports,” and that "[t]here are no differences in cognitive function or depression when comparing football athletes to noncontact athletes and to nonathletes.”

The league also contends that "[t]here are no differences in neurocognitive function between those who started playing football before verses after age 12,” that "[h]igh school students who played American football from 1946 to 1956 experienced no increased risk of developing dementia, PD, or ALS compared with non-football-playing high school males, despite poorer equipment and less regard for concussions compared with today,” and that changes to rules and enhanced sensitivity to safety “has resulted in the lowest risk of injury in high school football history.”

The entire document comes off as defensive regarding the perceived safety risks of youth football, and it overlooks the reality that -- unlike in professional football -- high-school football players still die from time to time while playing football. While there are many more high-school programs than NFL teams and the risk of death remains remote, one is too many.

Besides, given the league’s history, primarily from 1994 through 2009, of downplaying the risks of head trauma, it’s hard to attach much credibility to any effort by the league to argue that youth football is no riskier than other sports, or than not playing any sports at all -- especially since the league has a clear and obvious bias when it comes to ensuring that kids keep playing football.

That’s not to say that youth football should be banned. Full-contact football prior to high school arguably isn’t necessary, but it’s not going anywhere. Ditto for high-school football, especially in states like Texas and Pennsylvania, where it continues to be a critical part of the broader community experience.

Still, will anyone accept without hesitation any effort by the NFL to advance its clear and obvious desire to prop up youth football? While the argument can be made that if the NFL doesn’t defend youth football no one will, will the fact that the NFL is pushing this message cause anyone to say, “Well, if the entity whose future relies on a constant stream of football players is making these claims about youth football, they must be true”?

That said, the risks of playing football are now known by anyone who puts on a helmet, or for those under 18 by their parents or legal guardians. And football continues to thrive, even if fewer kids are playing football than they once did. Major college programs continue to have full complements of players, and only a small percentage demonstrate the skill and ability necessary to make it in the NFL, where grown men who routinely take all sorts of risks unrelated to the game of football understand and accept the risks of playing football.

My point is that it’s just strange to see the league banging the drum for the relative safety of youth football, because at this point nothing the league says will become the deciding factor between whether someone does or doesn’t play, at the youth level or above.