Citing a nationwide decline in youth football participation, the Long Island Broncos, a youth football program based in Seaford, has announced that it will phase out full-contact football for children ages 5 to 7 by 2020. For the upcoming 2018 season, parents can sign their 5- or 6-year-olds up for the Broncos’ modified program, a six-on-six flag football league that teaches the sport’s fundamentals, with no contact or equipment.
Bill Kind, of Seaford, the Broncos’ director of communications, said that the program has seen a drop in the number of 5- to 7-year-old participants over the past five years. “Through conversations with parents in the community,” Kind said, “we realize that many parents choose not to enroll their children because of a general reluctance to start a contact sport too young.”
The policy change comes amid a nationwide discussion on concussions and the sport’s causal relationship with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease caused by repetitive head injuries. On April 30, academic researchers at Boston University School of Medicine’s independent CTE Center, which investigates brain trauma in former football players — published a study linking youth football participation to the early onset of cognitive and emotional issues.
Dr. Michael Alosco, the study’s lead author, said that the researchers found the correlation after analyzing 246 deceased football players’ brains and interviewing their families. Asked his opinion on youth football, Alosco cited proposed state legislation around the country that would ban tackle football for children under 12, and the stance taken by the Concussion Legacy Foundation, a non-profit based in Boston that supports brain trauma study, treatment and prevention. A proposal to ban tackle football, currently in committee in the New York State Assembly, is called the John Mackey Act.
“[The] argument is that the skills you need for football — you’re really not going to develop those skills as a youth,” Alosco said. “But you will be able to develop them when your body is more mature at the high school level.”
In Seaford, the Broncos will use flag football as an alternative method of building those fundamental skills. Kind said he believes that the modified program will help regrow the sport’s participation by introducing budding athletes to football without full contact.
“There are many athletes not playing football who may become excellent football players a few years from now,” Kind said, “and we still want to expose them to football at an early age to prepare them for long-term success.”
Broncos Coaching Director Tony Barone, working with Kind, President Doug Schiller and Vice President Leif Rosen, came up with the flag-football idea. Before announcing the program, the four men, who are all from Seaford, spoke extensively with parents and took note of other youth football organizations that have flag football alternatives.
Rob Perpall, head football coach at Seaford High School, has a longstanding connection and an open-door policy with the Broncos, who are actively involved with, but not affiliated with, the Seaford School District. Many Broncos eventually grow up to become Seaford Vikings, and Perpall runs a fundamentals clinic with the varsity team for Broncos players every year.
When he heard the Broncos were introducing a non-contact program, Perpall said he was thrilled. “This idea of not tackling and playing flag football — you’re still incorporating all fun things, and it’s got to be a win-win for everyone, including the parents,” Perpall said. “I wish everyone would do this.”
He acknowledged concerns about player safety, and said that both Seaford High’s and the Broncos’ programs limit as many situations in which the risk of injury is high as they can. For example, neither program runs full-contact scrimmages, and they emphasize a tackling technique that minimizes the impact to a player’s head.
“We don’t ever want a kid to use their head as a weapon,” Perpall added. “The helmet is for protection, not a weapon.”
About 388,000 fewer children ages 6 to 12 played tackle football in 2016 than in 2008, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Aware of this sharp decline, Perpall said he has advocated for what the Broncos are doing for years, because it represents what he believes is the future of youth football.
“Kids learn the skills to have fun and play football,” he said. “It’s one of the most progressive ideas, and it’s going to increase the numbers.”