Pop Goes the Warner

What's driving the decline in youth football participation?


Pop Warner is under siege — or so says the national media.

Recent reports are that Pop Warner, America's largest youth football program, saw its participation drop a staggering 9.5 percent from 2010 to 2012, from its 2010 peak of 249,000 participants. Pop Warner, founded in 1929, grew steadily until recent years; according to ESPN, participation dropped 5.7 percent in 2011 and another 4 percent last year. If there's anything encouraging to be said for Pop Warner enthusiasts, it is that the decline appears to have flattened this year.

Why are kids leaving Pop Warner?

Many prominent commentators attribute the decline to factors that include the increased popularity of other sports. Others say Pop Warner is becoming less popular because of the NFL concussion epidemic, which has been blamed for everything from Junior Seau's suicide to Jim McMahon's descent into senescence.

Youth football probably won't go on as it is forever. I remember when I played in the 1980s, and the practices were grueling. Lots of laps and calisthenics, tackling drills in every practice and — for fat boys like me — trips to the sweat box to make weight. Today's parents seem less willing to subject their children to that — or even to let the children choose that for themselves.

Wes Benwick, president of the Mandarin Athletic Association (MAA) for the last two years, is the father of four boys who were or are Pop Warner players. Benwick's sons have had no concussions, though he "understands the risks" of youth football.

"Part of me is not surprised by the decline in participation," Benwick said by phone. "What I am seeing is an increase in younger players participating and a decline among older players due to alternatives" such as different leagues with different rules "because of age/weight issues" or even different sports.

The MAA has spent $25,000 to $30,000 on new helmets over the last couple of years, according to Benwick. Helmet technology is improving all the time, and a relatively well-positioned area like Mandarin can pony up for those resources with some effort.

"Parents are encouraged to buy their own equipment, as long as it meets our standards," Benwick said.

The standards are determined by a shared desire to avoid injury — a priority for Benwick and the MAA, which takes great pains to "avoid concussion injuries, though there is no more than a handful per year because size and speed are less than at the college and pro levels."

To manage concussions, the MAA plans to add a doctor to its board and institute baseline tests starting in 2014. The organization is still trying to figure out how to handle payment for the tests — either through the registration fee or as a prerequisite for entry.

Currently, the MAA has a qualified medical professional at every game to guard against concussions and other injuries. With leagues in St. Johns County already doing baseline testing, organizations in suburban enclaves are taking responsible steps to deal with injuries in what can be the most brutal of contact sports.

Are these efforts enough? It depends on how you look at it.

For risk-averse parents, there will never be enough preventive measures to justify the risk involved in tackle football for young people. If you've seen enough football games, you've forced yourself to become inured to what happens to grown men playing the game. From internal injuries and broken bones to concussions, contusions and comas, football is clearly a great way to make a young body old and a healthy body crippled.

That said, I think of my experience as a player when I was young. Concussions? Yeah, 
I had them, but not from football — rather, from playing on jungle gyms and riding bikes in traffic. In fact, the bike concussion stopped me from playing contact sports from then on.

I also think of the kids I saw at the most recent Jaguars game, fundraising for their team's trip to Nationals. They reminded me of me at that age — vulnerable, nervous, looking for a proving ground. Football may have its problems, and we may have seen its peak, but as far as forging the characters of young men, it helps as much as it harms — the occasional outliers notwithstanding. All kids need structure and camaraderie — and football, whatever its vices, provides that. 

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