Pop Warner Youth Football League Fights Brain Science with Brain Science


Pop Warner, America’s largest youth football organization, faces a crisis. The increasing awareness of the damage football can do to the brain has convinced more and more parents to keep their children away from the sport. Politicians from California to New York have proposed banning tackle football before high school.

This has presented Pop Warner officials with a complicated and difficult dilemma. They cannot deny the emerging science on brain trauma–there is too much established research by this point. Yet they must somehow keep parents and kids from fleeing youth football.

All this hovered in the background as Pop Warner’s executive director Jon Butler stood before an audience in midtown Manhattan on Tuesday, attempting to defend his organization’s existence.

Bicycling, skateboarding, roller blading, and other childhood activities can also be dangerous, he said. “Kids get concussions in a whole lot of ways.”

See also our November feature story on Brownsville, Brooklyn’s Pop Warner team: One Foot on the Turf, One Foot in the Streets

To be clear, this gathering was not about brain injuries, specifically. This was the second annual “Eat Smart, Play Safe” panel, and it featured speakers who specialized in nutrition and cognitive development and sportsmanship.

Concussions were not a focus, but a single health issue among a wide array of health issues. If there was a takeaway about the organization’s current stance on brain injuries, it was that the sport’s positive effect on the brain outweighs its negative effects. Countering brain science with brain science.

A poster board with a diagram of a brain declared how football promoted cognitive development in different areas of the brain: alertness, focus, mental engagement.

A neurologist, Dr. Majid Fotuhi, explained that people underestimate the brain’s resilience. The long-term damage from concussions, he told the audience, sets in only if an athlete does not address it, “like a car that is damage and you do not fix it.”

“If somebody has a concussion, it’s not over,” he said. “The brain is malleable, the brain is fixable, especially if you’re young.”

Sufficient sleep, regular exercise, Omega-3 DHA supplements, and a healthy diet cause the brain to grow, and can work to balance out potential long-term damage a kid suffers from a concussion, he said.

While the league has enacted regulations aimed at reducing the number of concussions, a certain amount of brain trauma in football is unavoidable. And so Pop Warner’s future relies on assuring and persuading parents that they are not signing their kids up for a future of degenerative brain disease.

The current knowledge has been enough to threaten youth football. Participation in Pop Warner had grown every year since its founding in 1929. Until 2010. From 2010 to 2012, the organization lost 9.5 percent of its players.

In November 2013, a survey by the Robert Morris University showed that around 40 percent of Americans supported a ban on tackle football before high school.

Bronx Assemblyman Michael Benedetto had, in fact, proposed such a law earlier that year.

“This is absolutely the first we have heard of any state doing something like this,” Butler told the Daily News. “Frankly, it is disturbing.”

See Also: Early Sign of Football’s Decline: Pop Warner Participation Dropped 9.5 Percent in Two Years

According to a USA Football survey of 4,000 participants, 4.3 percent of players suffered a concussion within the past two seasons. (By comparison more than 5 percent of NFL players suffer a concussion in a single season.)

Research into football’s longterm effects on the brain has focused mostly on athletes who played professionally for more than a decade, and, to a much lesser degree, on athletes who played up to high school and college levels.

Some neurologists have warned that kids are particularly vulnerable to long-term damage because their brains are still developing.

“I don’t believe it is worth the risk,” Dr. Pietro Tonino, a sports medicine physician at Loyola University Medical Center, said last year. “So I advise parents to try to steer their children to alternative sports. We are just beginning to understand the long-term consequences of injuries sustained at young ages.”

“No head trauma is good head trauma,” Dr. Robert Cantu, a Boston University neurologist, stated in his book. “If knocking around the brain can be avoided, then avoid it. This is my mantra even though there are many blanks to fill in regarding our knowledge of head trauma and its true effects. One concern is that kids who are playing in a tackle football league at age five (yes, such leagues exist) or engaged in another rough-and-tumble sport are at risk of a degenerative brain disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy.”

A March 2012 study, by scientists at Ohio State University, found that around 20 percent of kids who suffer mild concussions still show symptoms, such as forgetfulness or dizziness, a year after the injury.

A December 2012 University of New Mexico study showed that the brains of kids who suffered a concussion looked different four months after the injury: scans showed white matter not present in the non-concussed brains. Researchers, however, did not know whether the white matter was a sign of long-term damage or of the recovery process in a young and still-developing brain.

Pop Warner, though, is not on its death bed. Around 325,000 kids played in the league last season. Benedetto’s bill has stalled and faded from conversation. This is football, after all, and this is America.