Is Football Safe For Young Players?

Recent news of concussions, brain disease and suicides of former pro players have youth coaches rethinking the game of football. Host Michel Martin discusses new questions about safety with youth football coach Kim Deane and high school football coach Jamey Dubose.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the Tony Awards are this Sunday. They recognize excellence in the American theater. We decided to take a peek into how race is playing out on the stage this year. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we've been talking about safety for NFL players, and while most headlines about concussions, long term injuries and lawsuits highlight current and former professional football players, their careers likely started long ago on small neighborhood fields playing ball with friends.

So we decided we wanted to find out what's happening now on the youth fields to prevent those headlines in the future. With us now, youth football coach Kim Deane. He coaches kids aged eight to 10 years old for the Silver Spring Saints. That's in Silver Spring, Maryland, right outside Washington, D.C.

Also joining us, top-ranked high school coach Jamey Dubose. He coaches a football program at Florence High School in Florence, Alabama.

Gentlemen, coaches, thank you both so much for joining us today.

KIM DEANE: Thank you for having us.

JAMEY DUBOSE: Thank you having me.

MARTIN: Jamey Dubose, let me start with you because you're the new head coach at Florence High School this year. You were the coach of a powerhouse team in Alabama, Prattville High School, which was ranked number one in the country before the start of last year by some publications. Congratulations.

DUBOSE: Thank you.

MARTIN: And you know, as one would imagine, you've won many titles, so I want to ask you what your thoughts are when you see stories about people like Dave Duerson, who took his own life, and many people now say - and there's evidence that they perhaps believe that brain trauma was a contributing factor here. What goes through your mind when you see that?

DUBOSE: Well, it's heartbreaking, and you know, it makes me understand every day the importance of educating our kids, our coaches, our community, our parents and everybody on, you know, the necessary things that you need to take care of and you need to watch for and you need to see, and you know, I think any time you have a death - no matter who it is or whatever it is - and you can relate it back to a certain situation that, you know, may have happened a long time ago, I think, you know, the importance of educating the community and educating everyone involved is the most important thing.

And I think the steps have been made throughout the United States. I know in the state of Alabama great steps have been made over the last couple of years to make a great progression in stopping this in the future.

MARTIN: Are you changing anything in the way you work with young players? Is there something you are doing different now than you were doing before when you first started coaching?

DUBOSE: Oh, yes. Education is the biggest thing, you know, from starting early, even in the youth leagues and in our instructional junior high, middle school leagues, all the way up to us, you know, teaching on the board of how to use your helmet properly, you know, how to tackle, you know, proper fit and forms of where you should use your helmet, you shouldn't. Also, making sure our community's aware of, you know, the importance of sending helmets back every year. You know, it's very important that you get these helmets checked every year to make sure that they are certified and to make sure that safety precautions have been done on the helmets to make sure you don't have any athlete or any student in an unsafe helmet.

And, you know, I think, you know, just the importance of looking for the signs and the symptoms. You know, years ago you might take a big hit, and you know, a kid may come off and be a little bit shaky, and things, you know, would just go on in a ballgame and you not really understand some of the things that you're looking for, that you need to really hold this person out.

You know, in the state of Alabama, now an official can send a kid out of a game if he notices something different about a player. That's something that wasn't done two, three, four years ago. An official now can take it upon himself if he's been in the action and sees a hit that concerns him to an extent that he sees something change in a player, then that official has the authority to come - make that player come out of the game to be checked out.

Again, if there are signs of a player having any kind of head trauma, here in our state we have - took it upon ourself that that player must get medically cleared before returning to the field at any point in time.

MARTIN: You play an interesting role in this because on the one hand, you know, a lot of people are saying now, like Tom Brady, Sr., the father of superstar quarterback Tom Brady, said he didn't subscribe to kids playing until they were older. He didn't even let his son play until he was 14.

And the research shows that high school students actually have more injuries. On the other hand, a lot of high school coaches worry when kids show up not having played younger because they think, you know, maybe the teenagers walk onto a high school field green(ph), with no experience, that they might even be more susceptible. So I want to know, how do you respond to the current research in what you're hearing?

DEANE: Absolutely. The most important thing to remember is kids, especially boys, love the sport of football. Whether they start participating at the age of 10, 12, eight, six, whatever it is, kids will get out there and play. They want to play the sport of football.

When I first heard the scientific data on playing at the age of, you know, after 10, 12, it was kind of devastating to us because, you know, we start kids at the age of six and teaching them the basic fundamentals of playing. Just like Coach Dubose said, basic fundamentals of tackling, blocking and the safe way to go about doing it.

And in that regard, what we have to do is to make sure that, you know - and as DeMaurice Smith said, there's a paradigm shift. The way that we coached five, 10, 15 years ago has actually changed.

MARTIN: Can you give an example?

DEANE: Yeah. OK. So a perfect example - we always talk about how we can find the will of a player, whether or not a player really wants to play, whether he wants to get some. So we challenge players to do their very best on the field. Collisions are part of the game. Contact is part of the game. We celebrate hard hits. Unfortunately, we do. You know, there are segments on Sports Center, on the NFL Network - whatever it is - called big hits.

Kids love playing the sport. So what we have - you know, we have drills. You know, five, 10 years ago, we used to have a drill called bull in the ring. Coach Dubose, I don't know if you're familiar with that or not, but...

DUBOSE: Absolutely.

DEANE: That's something that's, I think, has been outlawed nationwide.

DUBOSE: It is.

DEANE: And bull in the ring, it used to be, Michel, where a kid would be in the center of a circle where players may be 10 to 15 yards away, and the circle - the kid in the middle would turn in a circle and point at somebody or the whistle would blow. Someone would run off the edge of the circle and they would meet in the middle, head-to-head contact.

MARTIN: No more.

DEANE: No.

MARTIN: No more of that.

DUBOSE: No. That - we've taken that out of our program several years ago also.

MARTIN: If you just tuned in, we're speaking with top-ranked high school coach Jamey Dubose. We're speaking with Pop Warner football coach Kim Deane. He coaches players who are aged eight to 10 years old. We're talking about the state of youth football and if they're changing the way they coach players in the wake of new information about concussions and other injuries.

Coach Dubose, what about that? You know, football is the most watched sport in the country. You know, the Super Bowls have the highest ratings of any television experience over the last however many years. And Coach Dubose, where you are, you know, Alabama's a football state. You know, wide or die.

DUBOSE: Absolutely.

MARTIN: It's all about football there. For a lot of kids it's a family tradition. How do you cope with the fact that, you know, a lot of kids won't want to admit that they're hurt? They won't want to, whether it's for Dad in the stands, whether it's for recruiters out there, how do you change that?

DUBOSE: Well, you know, that goes back to the education part of it. Here in our state, we try to - you know, our kids have to go through an education process online every year and they have to do an online course through our High School Athletic Association and take that course, which goes through all of the symptoms that they're looking for.

And I think the biggest thing is, is that second impact syndrome that people don't understand a lot about, you know, and that's where, you know, a kid has already sustained a bad head injury and he has swelling of the brain and then he's going to take another hit on top of that. That's where the major problems usually end up occurring.

And we're trying to cut that down by making sure that the player is educated to know that - hey, look, I know you want to play, but at the same time, it's better to play tomorrow than to not play for the rest of the year. And you know, we're trying to make them understand to sit out one play or to sit out several plays, you get more down the road if you'll be smart about what you're doing and not doing it.

And I agree with Coach on this, and a lot of the training has been changed, but I think the biggest thing to our sport that has changed - and I was talking with someone the other day - is the equipment. You know, for years, I think, if you look at now what the helmets - what they're doing to helmets and how they're building them and how they're creating new ways to stop concussions - I think, you know, we had a lot of players that are in the NFL now and when I played, the helmets just wasn't the most comfortable thing to put on your head. It was almost like you were running into somebody with nothing on at times.

Now, you know, these helmets are highly sophisticated things that we're putting on the heads of our kids now. The cost of the helmets have went up greatly. I know the fund in a high school athletic program - you know, on our varsity program at Prattville, we dressed 150 kids 10 through 12. So you know, to put the proper equipment on them and to make the right things to make safety a big issue, the cost went up greatly also.

And I think just the size and the strength and the speed of the players have changed over the years, and I think the collisions, as coach said - you know, it is a violent sport. We do hit in this and it is part of it, but I think the proper training, the proper teaching and the proper equipment over turn(ph) - I think has over the last - what, three, four years - the importance that has been laid on that, we're going to see the benefits of that maybe five, six, seven, eight years from now.

MARTIN: Coach Deane, I'm imagining that parents have probably started talking to you more about their concerns. This is a very well educated area. People follow the news and so forth. What concerns are parents bringing to you and what do you say to them? I don't want to just say Mom, but let's say...

DEANE: You're right. Parents.

MARTIN: Parents come and say, Coach, should my child play? What do you say?

DEANE: I say, absolutely. In the program, the Silver Spring Saints that we have, we're part of a league that has mandated through USA Football, which is the governing body of the nation's youth football programs, they have mandated that we replace all helmets 10 years or older. So the first thing that I will tell a parent is, we are on the right path, the path to make sure that they have the proper equipment to participate in the sport.

But coupled with that is we have - our coaches go through the certification online with USA Football to make sure they understand how to coach tackling, how to coach blocking, how to make sure that you take your head out of the equation when it comes to, like coach said, these collisions.

Parents may very well say, you know, well, you know, I think I'll let my kid wait until, you know, 10, 14 years old. Then they will be at a decided disadvantage when it comes to participating against kids that may have played when they were eight years old.

Just by the techniques and the skills that we take the kids through each and every day at practice, it's vitally important that we get them out there, but we coach them the right way.

MARTIN: So you can look a parent in the face and in good conscience, say, I think that your son can play this sport - there are a few girls who play, but mostly boys - and it is safe enough that you as a parent yourself feel that you can ethically advise people to continue in this sport?

DEANE: Absolutely, absolutely. As a matter of fact, I have a son who does play football, so...

MARTIN: All right.

DUBOSE: I agree totally...

MARTIN: All right, Coach. That was going to be my question. That was my final question to you as well. I mean, and there are - you know, there are some professional players who say that it's not football if there's not a lot of hard hitting. I wonder if you feel - as my final question to you - can the game be made safe enough where people who have an ethical concern about participating in something that can do permanent harm to someone can watch it and it's still football?

DUBOSE: Well, I agree totally, what coach said and what we said earlier - I think it goes back to the education. It goes back on the parents to making sure that their coaches are the people that they want being taught the right things. Not just about how to hit, not just about how to tackle, but how to ethically do things and how to be a young man and how to grow.

There's a lot of things that my coaches taught me through life that I know players see every day and I've got players that come back - they're in college - that relate back to what we learned in high school. And again, I think it goes back to the education side of it, as Coach Deane said. What they're doing there, what we're doing here - that was not done six years ago, seven years ago, eight years ago.

So now I think what we're doing in educating young coaches, older coaches and players and parents is the things that need to be taken, because I tell our parents - you can get a concussion in soccer. Soccer's a violent sport without any protection on the head. You know, and there are other sports out there that are very violent too, in the way that they handle things. It just so happens that I think our sport, with the collision of two bodies and the size and the strength that now - that our athletes are playing at, we've got to look at the equipment and the safety features and how to properly teach it, and I think that's being done now at our levels and in our good programs.

MARTIN: Jamey Dubose is the head coach of the football program at Florence High School in Florence, Alabama. He joined us on the phone from Florence. Also with us, Silver Spring Saints youth coach Kim Deane. He was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Coaches, gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

DEANE: Thank you so much.

DUBOSE: Thank you so much for having me.

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