As medical research provides more and more evidence that young athletes’ development could be permanently hampered by repeated blows to the head, players on youth football teams are bound to suffer if adults shirk their duty to protect them. All too often, they do: At a now-infamous Pop Warner football game in Southbridge last month, players from one of the teams, Tantasqua, were being taken off the field with serious injuries almost from the beginning of the game. Southbridge’s lopsided victory margin — variously reported at 34-0 and 52-0 — was an obvious hint that the game should have been stopped. Subsequently, it became clear that five children from Tantasqua, ages 10 to 12, had suffered concussions.
The teams have been pointing fingers; Tantasqua accuses Southbridge of violating a variety of league rules, while Southbridge officials insist that monitoring Tantasqua players should be up to that team’s coach. But those who coach, manage, and referee youth contact sports — or simply place their children in them — should understand that they are all responsible for children’s well-being.
With good reason, Pop Warner instituted punishments for both teams’ coaches and managers, as well as game referees. Pop Warner is the national league that organizes football for nearly half a million kids, some as young as 5 years old. It takes its game seriously, and serves as a feeder to elite high school programs. To its credit, as growing concerns about head injuries and concussions began to trickle down from the NFL and more studies showed the long-term consequences on the brain of a game known for its sheer brutal force, Pop Warner instituted tight controls on contact play and equipment requirements.
Those efforts are commendable, but they clearly haven’t swayed enough of the adults who run youth sports. During the game, Tantasqua officials decided to fight on even though injuries had brought the number of players on the team below the minimum of 16. For his part, Southbridge’s coach told The New York Times, “This is a football game, not a Hallmark moment.” On Friday, Southbridge Pop Warner’s website home page trumpeted the macho slogan “Are you tough enough?” in three separate places.
Any sport can be dangerous, and football is not alone in the risks for young players. Youth soccer and hockey also have instituted rules to protect from head injuries. Ultimately, though, each individual game is enforced by coaches (who are often parents of players) whose judgment may be the only thing that stands between a fun game and an utterly shocking one. That judgment was lacking that day in Southbridge, as child after child fell victim to adults’ unwillingness to stop a game between mismatched teams. Every coach, manager, referee, and parent who stood by and saw what was happening is to blame.