Column: Dangerous way for kids to emulate pros

Column: Dangerous way for kids to emulate pros

What looks like the NFL's latest nightmare played out on a football field an hour from Boston nearly six weeks ago. In a Pop Warner game between longtime rivals Southbridge and Tantasqua, five kids between the ages of 10 and 12 were concussed, all on the losing team, three in the first quarter and the last one on the final play of the game.

``Disturbing,'' is how Jon Butler, Pop Warner's executive director, described it.

It gets worse. The score at the end of the first quarter was Southbridge 28, Tantasqua 0. It was 52-0 at the final whistle.

Winning coach Scott Lazo, whose brother, Doug, is the Southbridge association's president, told the league committee that investigated the game he didn't notice the injuries piling up. ``It was a football game, not a Hallmark moment,'' he said to the New York Times. Losing coach Erik Iller, whose wife, Jen, is president of Tantasqua's association and whose team filed a complaint afterward, defended his decision to keep playing by telling the same committee he wanted his kids to score so they could ``leave with something.''

``From what we were able to put together, it was a combination of things, as bad events often are,'' Butler said over the phone Tuesday. ``There were two coaches who ignored several Pop Warner rules and, evidently, officials lost control of the game early.

``All we can do right now is reassure parents is that this is not typical at all,'' he added. ``It doesn't in any way exonerate the people involved. All of us are upset about that. We've imposed sanctions and if we hear about anything like this again, we won't hesitate to ramp up the severity of the penalties. Those people need to get the message that we won't tolerate it.''

After a hearing last week before the Central Mass Pop Warner league, both the coaches and association presidents were suspended for the rest of the season and put on probation through 2013. The three officials who worked the game were permanently banned for, among other things, failing to apply the mercy rule and end the game earlier.

The comforting thing - or not - is that Pop Warner is one of the most responsible youth sports programs around - it's the umbrella organization for 290,000 of the nation's roughly 3 million football-playing youngsters - and as safety-conscious as any.

It trains coaches to recognize concussion symptoms, provides guidelines about when players should be pulled from games, and after a preliminary study this summer concluded more devastating hits were delivered in practices than games, officials implemented a rule limiting contact drills to two of the six hours of practice allowed each week. It's begun a baseline survey to determine how many youngsters suffer concussions each season because currently, the only way to track them is through Pop Warner's medical insurers and last year, a total of only seven were reported.

Even Dr. Robert Cantu, who is co-director of the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy and argues against youngsters starting contact sports like tackle football and hockey before age 14, called several Pop Warner initiatives ``good first steps.''

``In this case, the punishments handed out seemed appropriate and I'm encouraged that the officials were held accountable for this debacle, too,'' Cantu said. ``You get crazy, one-sided games in a lot of sports, but in most of those, the mercy rule is applied to protect kids' psyches. In football, it's even more important, because what you're protecting is their bodies and brains.''

There's no mercy rule in the NFL, and not much more mercy, even at the top. During Commissioner Roger Goodell's tenure, the league has begun to address the wide-ranging problem of concussions with better information, stricter protocols covering player safety and changes in the rules. But none of it has discouraged Goodell from moving games to Thursday night to bulk up the NFL Network's profitability, pushing to increase the regular season to 18 games and launching a PR campaign that could be charitably described as disingenuous. A new commercial featuring Tom Brady and Ray Lewis reassures parents the league is concerned about player safety - without ever mentioning concussions - and earlier this month, the commissioner turned up at a youth football gathering in Virginia to promote the league's ``Heads Up Football'' program, designed to teach kids and coaches tackling skills to minimize potential head and neck injuries.

But the science on concussions increasingly suggests all those measures combined - and applied at every level - will reduce the numbers only so much. Cantu acknowledged what happened at that game in Massachusetts last month was an anomaly - ``I hope it was nothing more than an isolated event,'' he said. ``But it points out the dangers of brain trauma in a stark way. I hope no other game results in five concussions. But from what we know, from what I see increasingly in my practice, there are plenty of other games where concussions are taking place as well.''

Ultimately, Cantu believes the only answer to the problem, at the youth level, anyway, will come from parents. He co-authored a book that was released last month laying out the case to have kids play flag football instead of tackle.

``They haven't understood the dangers their kids are being subjected to. Once they do - and it won't happen in weeks, or months, maybe even years - they'll demand changes,'' he said. ``So we'll see.''


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.

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With another low shot total for Otto Porter, Coach Brooks says Porter needs to do more to help himself

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With another low shot total for Otto Porter, Coach Brooks says Porter needs to do more to help himself

After a night in which Otto Porter Jr. only took nine total shots, just two of them in the second half, many questions from Wizards reporters in the postgame locker room centered on how the team can get him more involved. This came on the heels of a seven-shot, zero-three outing for Porter against the Heat on Thursday and a preseason in which getting him more attempts was a persistent storyline.

It sounds like some are tired of talking about it. Point guard John Wall, who is part of the equation as the team's main distributor and highest usage player, put it in relatively strong terms.

"This will be the last time I talk about Otto Porter getting threes," Wall said. 

Wall went on to explain how it's a combination of defenses taking away the three-point line for Porter and the flow of the game creating better shots for others. It's a common explanation Wall has given on the matter in recent weeks, and it's understandable.

Head coach Scott Brooks has admitted his own role in Porter not getting enough shots, how more plays could be called for the small forward. But after the loss to Toronto, one in which Porter played just south of 25 minutes, he was a bit more blunt in his assessment.

Brooks believes Porter can be doing a lot more to help himself.

"Gotta get yourself open," Brooks said. 

When asked about Porter playing fewer minutes than usual, Brooks went on about the need for guys to play hard. That warranted a follow-up, as it seemed Brooks was questioning Porter's hustle.

Brooks explained what he meant by that in detail.

"You've got to move. You've got to set yourself up. You've got to run the floor. We got a fast point guard. I don’t know if you guys know that but he’s fast and if our wings aren’t running, what good is it when you’re going to have a one-man break? What makes teams play with pace is guys running." 

"I love Otto. You guys know that. But he has to play faster. He has to. Physically, he’s not going to jump over anybody and dunk over everybody, but he has to get himself into position. He’s a big-time player for us. He’s a glue guy. He makes winning basketball plays. He gets in plays but he has to do that consistently for us. He can’t do it for a half. He has to do it for the entire game. The guy can do it. I’ve seen it. He didn’t do it tonight but he’s going to bounce back. He didn’t do it the first two games but he’s going to bounce back and do it. And we need it.”

Porter, 25, was the Wizards' most efficient player last season, but averaged only 11.5 shots per game. With one of the best three-point shots in the NBA, the numbers suggest he should have a larger role.

The Wizards insist they are trying to get him more involved. In their eyes, it's time for Porter to do his part.

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Bradley Beal honored to pass Gilbert Arenas on all-time three-pointer list

Bradley Beal honored to pass Gilbert Arenas on all-time three-pointer list

Saturday night produced a link between some of the best players in recent Wizards/Bullets franchise history.

With a fourth-quarter three, Bradley Beal surpassed Gilbert Arenas on the franchise list for career triples

Beal, an All-Star last season, has already established himself as one of the best to play for Washington in decades. Afterwards, he paid homage to the man whose record he broke.

"I was always a fan of Gil. He was Agent Zero," Beal told NBC Sports Washington. 

"I loved everything about him; his confidence, his swagger on the floor. Granted, everyone talks about his off-the-court stuff, but what he did on the court is just untouchable. It's untouchable. He's a legend, for sure. Part of me wishes I could have played with him and just learned from him in a lot of ways. That's an accomplishment for me. I'm happy I was able to surpass it because he is a legend, in my opinion anyway."

Arenas' tenure with the Wizards was epic for its highs and lows. At his peak, he was arguably the most dangerous scorer in the NBA. But his downfall both on the court and off has left him as a notorious figure in the game's recent history.

John Wall, who has assisted on many of Beal's three-pointers, played with Arenas back in the 2010-11 season as a rookie. He is happy for his current teammate, who now has a distinct place in the team's history books.

"He's probably the best shooter I've ever played with in my eyes, so it's great to see him accomplish that," Wall said. "He's going to keep setting the bar higher and higher."

Beal passed Arenas in just the second game of his seventh NBA season. He's only 25 years old, so odds are he will keep adding to his franchise record for many years to come.