As the fall seasons begin, parents today are faced with difficult decisions about youth sports. Concerns regarding head trauma — primarily in contact sports like tackle football — are at an all-time high. Those concerns are well-founded, said Dr. Robert Cantu, medical director at Emerson Hospital’s Robert C. Cantu Concussion Center in Concord.
“There’s absolutely a risk,” said Cantu. “And there are going to be some kids who wind up with persistent post-concussion syndrome as a result of concussions sustained.
“There may be a few number of individuals who will wind up with cognitive, behavioral, and mood issues later in life due to the brain trauma suffered in high school,” he said. “But everything points to it being way less than if you had played a number of years before high school and then also played four years of high school football.”
That said, tackle football remains the country’s single most popular sport, at least from a spectator perspective. And what kids see, they often want to do. The problem, said Cantu, is that children under the age of 13 aren’t physically mature enough to handle the repetitive punishment that even their favorite New England Patriot may be unable to withstand.
“There were multiple studies that showed that youngsters’ necks were very weak at a young age – like a bobblehead doll effect, with a big head and a weak neck – so it takes very little jostling to produce big accelerations in the brain,” Cantu said.
So what are parents to do? Fortunately, they’ve got plenty of choices, both traditional and emerging, that will allow their young athletes to develop with a lower risk of head injury. Cross-country running, golf, rowing, ultimate Frisbee, and cyclocross racing all fit the bill during the fall season. But the sport that has really captured the imagination of kids and parents is flag football.
“The participation numbers in tackle football have consistently fallen in the recent five years, and the participation numbers for flag football have consistently risen in the last five years,” said Cantu. “So, parents are holding themselves accountable for what their kids are playing, or not playing.”
In the NFL Films feature “The Perfect Backfield,” former Miami Dolphin great Mercury Morris credited touch football for the incredible quickness that defined his pro career. Woburn’s Tina Pecina’s three sons – TJ, now 26, Ben, 17, and Kelly, 15 – all played flag football.
“I feel it’s so important for kids and parents to have non-contact options in sports,” she said. “Some kids are either not ready for contact sports or just don’t like the contact. But sports are so important. It allows kids to learn so many lessons, make many friends, and know what it’s like to be a part of a team.
“Non-contact allows everyone to have that chance,” said Pecina. “Flag football specifically lets kids – boy or girl – play the most popular sport in the United States even if they’re not ready for contact.”
According to Pecina, Woburn’s participation in the North Shore Flag Football League has jumped from roughly 100 kids to more than 400 in the past few years. The Beverly-based league continues to add more teams every season, said president Austin Bradshaw.
“Flag football in general has been growing across the country faster than any other sport,” Bradshaw said. “Our numbers have grown steadily over the last 15 years.”
The biggest reason for that growth, said Pecina, is “that every kid – no matter size, weight, age, athleticism – everyone can get a chance to touch the ball.” LeRoy Martin, cofounder of Viking Sports — which offers a variety of programs, including flag football, in places from Amesbury to Sudbury — said “parents are making some grass-roots changes at the youngest levels of sports.
“Having non-contact options [is] important,” said Martin. “Having flag football as an alternative to tackle football is important. Having street hockey as an alternative to ice hockey is also great. You’re giving kids the chance to discover a new sport in a safe and fun way.”
Similarly, ultimate Frisbee is “just a super fun sport, with tons of running, leaping, and diving catches,” said Raphael Savir, one of the founders and the first president of the Boston Ultimate Disc Alliance in the early 1990s. “It’s super accessible to many body shapes and sizes. You don’t need to be particularly tall or big to be a top-notch player.”
For the past seven years, Savir has been director of BUDA’s youth program, emphasizing the sport’s benefits.
“I’m very partial to low- or non-contact sports and think that these are both healthier options for kids and also for adults,” said Savir. “We find that kids can play Frisbee when they’re as young as 5 or 6, but typically they’re maybe 11-12 years old when they start getting interested in Frisbee as a competitive endeavor.”
Boxford’s Steve Sawyer has been the cross-country coach at Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School for four decades. Electing to play a contact sport, he said, “is an individual and family decision based on the personality of the athlete and individual talent.
“Obviously, young athletes are exposed to programs involving football, baseball, basketball, soccer, and maybe swimming, but they’re not always the final answer for the athlete,” said Sawyer. “Cross country is a great option because of the camaraderie of the team and respect between members of the team that it brings.”
Bridgewater’s Bill Shattuck, co-director of the AP Junior Development Cycling Team and a veteran cyclocross racer, said “not all kids want to be the quarterback. Some kids have a natural gift toward endurance sports, but our society puts an emphasis on the ‘stick and ball’ sports.”
A fall-specific sport, cyclocross merges elements of cross-country and steeplechase running with road cycling and mountain biking.
“Cyclocross, and cycling in general, is a fantastic sport for kids and adults to participate in,” said Shattuck. “What kid doesn’t know how to ride a bike? ‘Cross is the best of all cycling worlds.”
Globe correspondent Brion O’Connor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.