As the concussion epidemic continues to plague the sport of football, Pop Warner is taking a revolutionary approach to limit the damage, eliminating kickoffs from some competition.
In a press release on Thursday, Pop Warner Little Scholars dubbed the decision the first of its kind for a national football organization, citing safety as the driving force behind the move.
“We are constantly working to make the game safer and better for our young athletes, and we think this move is an important step in that direction,” said Pop Warner executive director Jon Butler said in a statement. “Eliminating kickoffs at this level adds another layer of safety without changing the nature of this great game. We are excited to look at the results at the end of the year as we explore additional measures.”
The announcement comes a day after after Donnovan Hill died from complications related to a paralyzing injury he suffered at age 13 while making a head-on tackle during a Pop Warner game in 2011, according to ESPN.com. Hill and Pop Warner reached a multi-million dollar settlement in January 2016, ending a lawsuit that claimed his coaches improperly trained him to tackle headfirst. In December 2015, a trial date was originally set for May 11, the day he died.
In March, Pop Warner and the family of a former football player who suffered from CTE and committed suicide at age 25 reached an undisclosed settlement in a wrongful death lawsuit.
The elimination of kickoffs will go into place this coming season for children ages 5-10 competing at Pop Warner’s Tiny Mite, Mitey Mite and Junior Pee Wee levels. The ball will instead be placed at the 35-yard line to begin each half and following every score. Following the 2016 season, Pop Warner pledged to review the results before putting the policy in place for older children.
In a similar move aimed at preventing head-on collisions during kickoff returns, the NFL recently approved a rule change that moves touchbacks from the 20-yard line to the 25 on a one-year trial.
In addition to the elimination of kickoffs at its lowest levels, Pop Warner also enacted a rule that will limit the amount of contact drills to 25 percent of practice time. The organization previously limited to contact to 33 percent of practice time in 2012. Pop Warner formed a Medical Advisory Committee committed to healthy and safety issues in 2010. Since then, they’ve enacted a new concussion policy, required coaches to participate in USA Football’s Heads Up Football tackling technique program and eliminated head-to-head drills from more than 3 yards apart.
The question Pop Warner must answer now: If kickoffs are dangerous for children at the lowest levels, wouldn’t it follow that the older kids are also in danger? Perhaps more seasoned players are better equipped to incorporate proper tackling technique to avoid kickoff concussions.
Regardless, debate will rage on over whether the concussion epidemic will change football as we know it, but at least Pop Warner is being proactive about finding solutions to preserve the game.