City of Steamboat Springs considering changes to youth football programs to prevent concussions, injuries
Steamboat Springs — As life-altering head injuries in football continue to gain nationwide attention and cast a cloud about the National Football League, the city of Steamboat Springs is considering making some significant changes to its youth football programs to make the sport safer for its youngest players.
“The big question is, what is best for the kids?” city youth sports league coordinator David Stevenson said.
The city is posing that question to the community and medical professionals as it considers a range of changes that include stopping its tackle football programs at the fifth- and sixth- grade levels and changing them to flag football programs.
Other possible changes include more player safety education programs for coaches of the sport.
The Steamboat Springs School District is also involved in the discussions, as many of the youth from the city’s football leagues go on to play at the middle and high school levels.
To help guide their decisions for next football season, the city and school district are reviewing the latest research on concussions, consulting with medical professionals and seeking public feedback on their football programs and the safety of players.
Comments can be emailed to Stevenson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We’re talking internally right now, but we want as much feedback as possible from the community, especially because it’s a pretty sensitive subject,” Stevenson said.
Stevenson said the city is also considering conducting surveys to help guide the future of the sports programs.
He added a clear consensus on the best steps forward could be difficult to find, because opinions on the issue vary widely, even among experts.
“Parents are going to vary with their opinion,” he said. “Maybe they moved here from a community where youth started playing tackle much earlier than we do. There are really a wide array of experiences our parents come from. There are 10 different opinions on what a 10-year-old kid should or should not be exposed to.”
Stevenson said he has heard of children starting to play tackle football as early as first grade, when they are 7 years old.
Recent research on youth football head injuries offers both proponents and opponents of starting tackle football before age 12 ammunition in the debate.
A 2015 Boston University study published in a medical journal found that former NFL players who played tackle football prior to age 12 were more likely to have thinking and memory problems as adults.
ESPN reported the study also noted children are in a critical and sensitive window for brain development when they are between the ages of 10 and 12, and head injuries can have lifelong consequences.
On the other hand, a 2013 study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center found youth football is a “generally safe activity,” and it may be counterproductive to reduce contact during practices, because it might actually increase the chances of concussions during games.
Those who conducted the study said the risk could be greater, because the children playing the sport would have spent less time learning how to properly tackle and avoid head injuries during practice.
Here in Steamboat, head injuries do occur in youth sports each year.
When football players at Steamboat Springs High School suffered 13 concussions during the 2011-12 season, leaders of the program launched an effort to reduce that number.
It paid off.
New helmets designed to reduce concussions were purchased, a local doctor was consulted and the team saw the number of head injuries reduced to four during the 2012-13 season.
Stevenson did not have exact statistics on the number of head injuries in the city’s youth football program, but he estimated the annual number of overall injuries has been limited to between zero to three in recent years.
“They’re hard to gauge, but we’ll generally see at least something every year,” he said.
Not all of injuries are concussions.
Stevenson said during his three years with the league, which has about 120 players split between the flag and tackle programs, he has seen the number of overall injuries decrease.
He credited the decrease to training methods from coaches who teach the players how to properly tackle and protect their heads.
“We’re spending a lot more time in our tackle programs on building the skills and the techniques of the participants before we introduce them to full contact,” Stevenson said. “We are using techniques that are coming out almost yearly that are proving to decrease the number of injuries.”
Leaders of the local sports programs emphasize they value the sport and want children to continue having fun playing it, but they also have a responsibility to keep participants safe.
If the city does decide to make changes to the tackle programs at the fifth- and sixth- grade levels, Stevenson said it could still incorporate some form of contact.
“We have a lot of options,” he said. “We haven’t made any decisions yet.”
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