Youth tackle football on decline due to safety concerns

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- High-profile football injuries are factoring into more parents choosing to play it safe with their kids. Its part of the reason participation in youth tackle football in America is on the decline.

St. Paul Parks and Recreation stopped its program this past season.

"We couldn't run a league," said Andy Rodriguez, SPPR's director. "We didn't want to run a three-team or two-team league. It doesn't make any sense."

The number of kids playing in St. Paul's leagues dropped nearly in half from 2016 to 2019. Rodriguez says part of the reason for that is safety concerns.

"We've heard that a lot from parents and not coincidentally, we've seen flag football numbers rise as tackle football has declined," he said.

But it's not quite as dramatic as it sounds. Plenty of those kids are simply migrating to independently-run leagues.

The commissioner of the Twin Cities North Football League told WCCO in September that enrollment's held steady for years.

The Lake Minnetonka Athletic Association, for teams from six western suburbs, has had growth in its numbers.

"The best time for anyone to try this sport is at a youth level," said Mark Jezierski, LMAA's vice president. "If you watch a fourth-grade tackle football game, it's no different than a fourth-grade soccer game. When I grew up playing tackle football, it's much different now."

Coaches have to be certified annually in proper tackling technique and concussion training. Full contact in practice is limited.

"It's just about an experience," Jezierski said. "You want to provide a safe environment in which a kid can have an opportunity to play the sport because most of them are not going to play for an extended period of time."

But again, the numbers should be taken with a grain of salt because of the other available options outside of city-sponsored leagues.

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