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Northborough flag football youth league part of a trend to greater safety

Ben Cimorelli dodges a flag-grab by 8-year-old Ziyaad Olla during a flag football game in Northborough.
Peter Batchelder
Ben Cimorelli dodges a flag-grab by 8-year-old Ziyaad Olla during a flag football game in Northborough.

NORTHBOROUGH — Peter and April Cimorelli’s two young sons are budding athletes. Already a dedicated hockey player, the elder boy, 8-year-old Ben, has asked for a while to play football, but his parents are concerned about the risk of injury. So when they heard a flag football program was starting right down the street, they became excited.

“We’re not the type of parents who think football shouldn’t be played by anybody,” Peter Cimorelli, 36, said recently, “but certainly with all the things that have come out about concussions in the last few years, especially among younger children, it’s definitely a concern.”

In late July, the Cimorellis took Ben and his 4-year-old brother, A.J., to an introductory exhibition game at Northborough’s New England Baseball Complex, and the boys gave the noncontact experience rave reviews. Insead of tackling, a player pulls a flag that is attached to the opponent’s belt.

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“The kids loved it,” he said. “They had a great time, both of them, and the gentlemen running it did a great job working with the kids.”

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The new flag football league, open to boys and girls ages 8 to 14, runs from Sept. 23 to Nov. 5 and is part of what appears to be an emerging trend.

Football remains a rite of passage for many Americans, but as doctors, parents, and coaches learn more about the long-term risks of head trauma, sports organizations are taking measures to reduce the risk of concussions and other injuries.

In December, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association adopted limits on full-contact play for high school football players during the preseason. And at the collegiate level, the Ivy League recently eliminated to-the-ground full contact during regular-season practices.

Pop Warner Little Scholars announced in May that it would eliminate kickoffs in leagues for children ages 5 to 10 and limit contact to about one-quarter of practice time.

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“We are constantly working to make the game safer and better for our young athletes, and we think this move is an important step in that direction,” Jon Butler, Pop Warner’s executive director, said in a statement. “Eliminating kickoffs at this level adds another layer of safety without changing the nature of this great game.”

The May announcement followed Pop Warner’s adoption in 2010 of a policy requiring players who sustain head injuries to obtain medical clearance before participating in further league activities and a 2012 ban on blocking and tackling drills in which players approach each other at full speed from more than 3 yards’ distance.

Jason Kosow, chief executive of the New England Baseball Complex, said he has seen a growing interest in flag football across the region in recent years, such as the North Shore Flag Football League and the Bay State Flag Football League in Westwood.

His organization and Terriers Sports launched the new league in Northborough to make the game available to more local families. “We saw some of the successes and everything that’s been going on,” he said, “and really there isn’t a strong flag football contingency here in Central Mass.”

The growing embrace of the sport extends across the country.

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Nearly 1.7 million children ages 6 to 14 participated in flag football in 2015, up 8.7 percent from 2014, according to the latest USA Football Participation Survey. Slightly under 2.2 million children in the same age group played tackle football, an increase of 1.9 percent over the previous year.

The enduring popularity of tackle football and other contact sports puts young people at risk of injury, researchers say.

Dr. Paul J.P. Pongor, an orthopedic surgeon with the UMass Memorial Health Care, said researchers are still studying the full range of potential effects from sports-related head trauma, but the early evidence is concerning.

“They already can find changes in the brain with just one year in contact sports,” said Pongor, a past president of the Massachusetts Orthopaedic Association. And the risks are greater for younger athletes, perhaps because their brains are still developing, than for college players.

Pongor said research shows that tackling is responsible for more than two-thirds of football players’ concussions.

“It does change the nature of the game, but you can take that out of football, and that’s where flag football comes in,” he said. “By taking out the head-to-head contact completely, kids aren’t getting exposed to that.”

He and Kosow said they see increased concerns about injuries across all sports, not just football, as the conditioning and competitiveness of young players seem to be on the rise.

“From when I played baseball 10 or 20 years ago, the game has changed,” Kosow said. “Kids are getting bigger, faster, stronger, which is, I think, a big concern for football and other sports.”

Kosow said introducing younger children to noncontact football allows coaches to teach them the fundamentals of the game first, so they are better prepared to play safely when they are older and move on to tackle football.

Peter Cimorelli, who played baseball and soccer in his youth without any significant injuries, said that’s exactly the approach he’d like to take with his son Ben.

“I’d much rather him start off with flag football and then progress to tackle later on . . . if he still sees football as a sport that he really wants to excel in,” he said. “As a father, I’d rather have him do that.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.