At a Pop Warner football game in Brooklyn a few months ago, a nine-year-old shuffled toward the sideline, wincing but not crying, cradling his left arm. It took maybe half a minute before any of his team’s three coaches noticed, as they directed players into position on the field. The coach met the player at the sideline and escorted him to a bench a few yard back. He talked to the boy for a few seconds, then turned around and strolled several steps onto the field.
He shouted at his counterpart, the coach of the home team, on the opposite sideline.
“Yo! Hey! You got a medic?” He didn’t sound particularly frantic or flustered, just serious.
“What’s wrong?” the home team’s coach yelled back.
“I don’t know. He’s holding his elbow.”
As at many youth football games around the city and country, there was no medic present here. A bill proposed by Brooklyn councilman Steve Levin seeks too change that.
Levin, who represents the borough’s northwest waterfront, has crafted his proposal from this increased awareness. The bill, named the Youth Football Safety Act, would require that a doctor or athletic trainer is present at any organized youth football game or full-contact practice played on city land, including schools and parks. It covers school leagues, as well as Pop Warner.
The legislation directly addresses head injuries: Only the doctor would have authority to decide whether or not a player will take a concussion test.
The absence of doctors from games hasn’t been a matter of pure negligence. It’s about money. Many youth football programs barely scrape together enough funds to pay referees and league fees, hoping each week that the concession stand makes enough cash to cover the game-day expenses. A medic-on-hand might feel like a luxury.
With no doctor available, the home team’s coach put the responsibility onto his own shoulders. He delegated play calling duties to his assistance and jogged over to the injured player on the bench, kneeling to meet his eye level.
The coach asked the players a couple of questions and glanced at the elbow for a bit to ensure the injury was not grave. Then he helped pull the jersey off the boy, which, any football player who has suffered an arm injury will tell you, can be an excruciating experience. But the boy barely grimaced. The coach removed the shoulder pads then stretched the boy’s arms back. Looked like he was fine. Probably just a strain. A parent brought over an ice pack, the coach returned to his sidelines, and all parts were back in place.
This process plays out multiple times in games with no doctor. It is what happens when a player limps off the field with an apparent leg injury and it is what happens when a player lies still on the turf after a big hit.
Youth coaches sometimes note that a majority of apparent injuries initially appear worse than they are because kids are kids and football is rough and most nine-year-olds are still getting accustomed to playing through bruises and bumps.
Not that that explanation eases a parent’s concern about the sport. More and more parents, after all, are keeping their boys out of youth football–because while the short-term risk has always been clear, the true long term risk reached public consciousness only within the last five or so years.
Send story tips to the author, Albert Samaha