Since the national conversation around football started to include the words “concussion” and “chronic traumatic encephalopathy” in place of euphemisms like “getting your bell rung,” the game’s future has been in question. Documentaries like League Of Denial and bestsellers like Against Football highlight the issue that the NFL even tacitly acknowledged with ads resembling political spots, assuring moms that the game is safe for their kids.

That’s all well and good, but it hasn’t proven to be convincing: Pop Warner participation is down 9.5% from 2010 to 2012, and all of the money in the game at the college and pro levels won’t mean much for the game if there aren’t players in ten years. The future of football is in question, and figuring out how to make parents feel secure letting their kids play it is the key to resolving that question in a manner that assures the sport of its continued prominence. 

That’s something they seem to understand out in the East Texas town of Marshall, where the youth football program, under the guidance of Marshall High School coach Clint Harper, has pulled the plug on its tackle football program for young players, instead switching the format over to two-hand touch. As the Houston Chronicle reports

Before Clint Harper was Marshall High School’s head football coach, he was among the dozens of Marshall seventh-graders who played weekly touch football games—no helmets, no pads, just pitch-and-catch—under the watchful eyes of Mavericks varsity coaches.

Two decades later, Harper watches from the parking lot overlooking Marshall Junior High School’s football field as seventh-graders play twice-weekly games sans parents, cheerleaders, bands and the other trappings that accompany even junior high school football in a state that embraces the sport like no other.

At a time when kids as young as 6 and 7 are donning helmets and shoulder pads for full-contact football, Harper’s revival this year of a successful but discontinued approach is an anomaly. But it also reflects recent concerns about concussions, head and neck injuries and the determination of some coaches to develop a better, safer game.

“We’ve got a hundred and something seventh-graders, and we want to keep every one of them to play in the eighth grade,” Harper said. “We want them to learn about football and have fun.”

Harper admits that a program like that is only truly feasible as a solution in a town the size of Marshall, which has one high school program and one youth program—in a place like, say, Dallas or Houston, where there are more options, someone is always going to offer tackle football to young players. 

But the question that Marshall raises is: should they? 

People have been asking that question in various forms for a while now. In 2012, Slate published a strong condemnation of letting children play tackle football, in which writer Stefan Fatsis spoke to—among others—Dr. Robert Cantu (whom the Chronicle also interviewed) about the risks of putting pads and helmets on children and letting them smash into each other.

“Youngsters are not miniature adults,” Cantu said. For starters, he explained, their brains are not fully myelinated, meaning their nerve cells lack the complete coating that offers protection. That makes them more susceptible to concussions and means they recover more slowly from them than adults. Cantu said children have big heads relative to the rest of their bodies and weak necks, creating a “bobblehead-doll effect” that elevates the risk of concussion. They typically play in the oldest equipment, with the least educated coaches, and with little or no available medical care. They are allowed to hit each other in practice—up to 40 minutes per session in Pop Warner football, under new guidelines—to a greater extent than NFL players are in season. And finally, kids are unable to provide meaningful informed consent. “Rarely do they really understand the risk they’re taking,” Cantu said.

Programs like the one instituted in Marshall seem to offer a strong compromise—those of us who love football want to see it played, but safely—and one that benefits learning the fundamentals of the game. There’s not a strong reason to start young children tackling each other, and having young kids play without helmets teaches them not to rely on the shell as a hitting tool. That’s something that governing bodies are trying to phase out of the game at all levels (NFL penalty flags for leading with the helmet seem to dot the field numerous times every Sunday), but it’s tough to ask grown men who’ve been playing the game since they were seven years old to change the way their bodies instinctively move suddenly. If those grown men learned to play coverage or take a player down with their hands, first, though, it’s much less of an issue.

What Fatsis suggests is fairly comprehensive, rolling out different elements of the game a step at a time as kids’ bodies are prepared for them: 

It’s not as if there aren’t alternatives. Maybe have kids play flag football wearing no pads until they’re 10, then with shoulder pads until 13. At 14 or 15, if they are determined to be physically mature, players can don helmets and wrap up opponents to bring them to ground. Any blow to the head or leading with the head is an automatic ejection. Full hitting can start on high-school varsities. Tackling can be taught over time—flag football teaches the proper entry point for contact, around the hips; rugby-style tackling might be instructive—to prepare kids for full contact when their bodies are ready, or at least readier, for it.

The idea that rushing kids to tackle football can be troubling is one that has supporters even among pro players. The Houston paper talked to the middle of Texas’ most successful trio of quarterbacking brothers in recent memory: Josh McCown, currently of the Tampa Bay Bucs, who—along with his brothers Luke (who backs up Drew Brees in New Orleans) and Randy (who started for Texas A&M in the late 90s—played in a similar system in Jacksonville, about 70 miles southwest of Marshall, as a young player. “In my opinion, there is zero benefit from playing [tackle football] in the fifth, sixth or seventh grades,” McCown told the Houston Chronicle. “If I were running a high school program, I’d do the same thing. I wouldn’t start until the eighth grade.” That’s not far off from what Fatsis proposed, or what Cantu suggests—which means that, out in Marshall, at least, they’re looking for progressive solutions that might help keep football viable for the next generation or two. 

(image via Flickr)