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Pop Warner Participation Reportedly Drops Due to Concern over Head Injuries

CARLSBAD, CA - NOVEMBER 9:  The defensive line of the Carlsbad Charging Lancers comes in all sizes during the Pop Warner Division Finals on November 9, 2002 at Carlsbad High School, in Carlsbad, California.  With the Lancers' 18-0 victory over the San Dieguito Ravens, they are 10-0 and head for Florida for the Pop Warner National Champs. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
Donald Miralle/Getty Images
Tim KeeneyContributor INovember 14, 2013

As the concern over head injuries and concussions in football increases, participation in the sport is reportedly decreasing among youth programs. 

ESPN's Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada reported some of their findings and shared some specific data on the matter:

The nation's largest youth football program, Pop Warner, saw participation drop 9.5 percent between 2010-12, a sign that the concussion crisis that began in the NFL is having a dramatic impact at the lowest rungs of the sport.

According to data provided to "Outside the Lines," Pop Warner lost 23,612 players, thought to be the largest two-year decline since the organization began keeping statistics decades ago.

As the report states, there are several factors that could be leading to a decrease in Pop Warner participation, from a struggling economy to kids specializing in one sport. 

However, Dr. Julian Bailes, Pop Warner's chief medical officer, told Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada that concern over head injuries is "the No. 1 cause" for the dropoff:

"Unless we deal with these truths, we're not going to get past the dropping popularity of the sport and people dropping out of the sport," said Bailes, a former Pittsburgh Steelers neurosurgeon whose 10-year-old son, Clint, plays Pop Warner outside Chicago. "We need to get it right."

The report also cites Tony Strickland, an associate clinical professor of neurology at UCLA's Geffen School of Medicine who sits on the Pop Warner's Medical Advisory Committee, who spoke to both sides of the issue:

[He] said he believes participation dropped "in part because of the description of individual cases and the information out there about the incidence of CTE. If I'm a parent, anybody hearing that information, in the absence of other science, would be foolish not to be cautious."

But Strickland, who is CEO of the Sports Concussion Institute, said concerns about football and head injuries have outstripped the pace of scientific evidence, creating unwarranted hysteria about the risks of playing football.

"I have felt that the pendulum swung way ahead of the science and what we know," Strickland said.

Over the past several years, more and more research surrounding concussions has been done, leading to greater knowledge and discoveries of the long-term effects and danger of head injuries in football. Many deaths and cases of depression have struck former NFL players recently, as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a notable brain disease that has been linked to football.

On Thursday, Chad Stover, a high school player in Missouri, died two weeks after suffering a brain injury in a football game. Charles Youvella, a high school senior in Arizona, passed away on Nov. 11 from a traumatic brain injury sustained in a football game. And in September, another high schooler, Damon Janes, died following a helmet-to-helmet collision.         

Unfortunately, these types of stories at all levels of the game are all too common.    

As such, it's not surprising that some parents are taking extra precaution and keeping their kids away from the sport. 

That being said, changes are frequently being implemented to help make football safer. 

In the NFL and at the college level, there have been several rule changes over the last couple of years to better protect the players. And at the youth level, Pop Warner recently cut down on the amount of tackling permitted in practice and teamed up with the NFL to endorse "Heads Up Football," a campaign intended to teach kids the proper mechanics of tackling.  

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