Adi Talwar

Running Back Kyron Coles of the New York Lions with the ball during a playoff game against the Bayside Raiders at the Raiders home field in Flushing Queens. The Lions lost the game 24-16. This youth football game was for 15- to 17-year-old boys.

The battle that is ensuing on a field in John V. Lindsay East River park on a crisp October night mirrors what is followed by throngs throughout the nation. A handful of family and friends are strewn about the outskirts of the field, teammates and coaches among them. More than once their shoes step well over the boundaries of the field, causing a referee to give multiple warnings to keep behind the sidelines. The athletes’ fluid movements are executed to either evade or engage. The navy blue of the New York City Lions’ jerseys contrasts sharply against the deep red of that of the Springfield Rifles’ as they are poised, adjacent to one another, ready to execute a play.

After a hard blow flattens a Lion upon the dewy blades of grass and stiff earth, both teams kneel. When the Lion regains his bearings he limps. For every step he takes back towards the sidelines he is applauded by all in attendance. The legacy of football spans from generation to generation of Americans, woven into culture and family like the laces on a pigskin.

That culture and the sport itself has been under scrutiny for nearly a decade as medical evidence has mounted that concussions endemic to the sport have devastating lifelong consequences. After a period of denial, professional and college football leagues and teams have taken steps to try to prevent the damage.

But this fall came new research highlighting the risks facing football’s youngest players. The research project titled “Age of First Exposure to American Football and Long-Term Neuropsychiatric and Cognitive Outcomes’, was carried out by Dr. Robert Sterns of Boston University and a team of neural clinicians. It found that the new generation of youth football players—like those clashing at Lindsay Park—have a greater risk of sustaining cranial trauma and developing neurological conditions if they play before the age of 12.

Those who participated in the study of 214 former American football players who played before that age exhibited a greater loss of verbal, memory, and executive function than those who began the sport after that age.

The study seemed to demand a broader discussion in New York City about the rules for—and even the wisdom of—youth tackle football, which non-profit leagues play at city-owned parks and public-school teams play at Department of Education facilities.

But City Limits found uneven evidence that was occurring. Most private-team coaches we contacted dismissed the latest study.

The New York City Parks Department, which controls the fields where most of those teams play, said it is currently reviewing the Boston University study.

The New York City Department of Education failed to respond to repeated requests for comment. The head coaches of the top four PSAL ranked high school football teams Erasmus (High School For Service Learning) of Brooklyn, Curtis of Staten Island, Tottenville of Staten Island, and Abraham Lincoln of Brooklyn, declined to comment on the research and what its findings could mean for the future of the sport. Currently, high school football teams in New York City have an age minimum of fourteen.

Changes already

Whether leagues react or not, football is changing in light of the new understanding of concussion risk. There has been a 20 percent decrease in enrollment in youth football leagues since 2009. Alternatives to the sport, such as touch and flag football are being promoted to provide a similar game that is less physical and will possibly incur less risks for their participants.

But there have been changes.

As recently as 2016 the NFL has implemented rule changes to reduce the risk of concussions among their players. The ‘Crown of Helmet’ rule declares the act of lowering one’s head and making forcible contact with the crown of their helmet on a runner outside of the tackle box as an illegal tactic.

In 2016 Ivy League football teams also implemented changes to reduce risk of concussions by removing tackling from their practice sessions.

In 2012 New York State passed the Concussion Management and Awareness Act, a law which requires all high school coaches to be certified in concussion management. The act requires that coaches be knowledgeable of concussion symptoms and prohibits youths which exhibit these symptoms from returning to their team for 24 hours.

In New York City youth football leagues have implemented tackling techniques which reduce head-to-head contact. Some of these leagues have also limited hitting time in practice to reduce the possibility of sustaining injuries such as concussions.

In defense of football

Coaches of youth league football teams in New York City advocate for the sport as being family-friendly and promoting camaraderie amongst team members. Some of these individuals believe that through coaching they are filling a void for young men who lack a father-figure in their life.

Some believe that football is being demonized. The co-founder and executive director of the non-profit NYC Lions youth football league, Timothy Cavanaugh, holds this sentiment. Cavanaugh believes that effective preparation in practice with certified football coaches can protect players from injuries in youth football. His team is based on the Lower East Side.

Cavanaugh believes that improper methods of tackling that are taught by inept coaches are what is putting young athletes at risk. The NYC Lions‘ team members—kids as young as 12 years old—are made to repeat the mantra “eyes to the sky and you will rise, eyes to the ground and you will go down” at their practice sessions. This mantra serves as a testament to Cavanaugh’s commitment to ensuring that his players are consistently tackling with the correct form: hitting face-up and with the shoulders as opposed to head down with the helmet. “If a kid has a concussion he has to get a doctor’s note before he can step foot on our field again” says Cavanaugh, “There are coaches out there that encourage bunting (using one’s helmet to tackle, also known as spearing), I’ve never been a proponent of that, I have never taught that, I will never teach that.”

Bill Solomon, the founder of the Brooklyn Titans youth football league, which plays at the Staten Island Boys Facility and allows players as young as 8 years old to play tackle, asserts that doing away with youth tackle football and replacing it with either flag or touch football will disrupt the purity of the game.

“What will be left after these changes?” says Solomon “Flag football and tackle football are as similar to each other as they are to basketball.”

Solomon, who has led his teams to two National Championship tournaments, states that there are risks in any competitive sport but some of those risks have returns, such as scholarship offers.

According to stats from the NCAA, about one in 16 high-school football players (6.8 percent) ends up playing college football. About one in 50 college football players ends up with any kind of professional career.

In an effort to limit injuries, Solomon teaches rugby-style tackling (which involves wrapping your arms around an opponent to bring them down, rather than hurling your body at them to try to knock them down) and reduces the amount of hitting his athletes engage in to less than one hour in total over the three days that they practice.

Doubts about the study

Some skeptics of the concussion fears note that the BU study examined individuals who were playing football decades ago. The participants in the study were an average of 50.68 years of age. In recent years, there have been developments such as design changes to football helmets to make play safer.

An official at Yorkville Youth Athletic Association’s football division, a program that currently offers both flag and tackle football, believes that the study is outdated and that the game has changed significantly in regards to safety precautions. YYAA allows players in their Peanuts division which consists of youths age 9 and under to play tackle.

“The style of football now is way different then it was back then. The game was savage back then,” says the YYAA official, “I think it falls upon the shoulders of each individual program to be safe. It’s a matter of keeping each other accountable.”

The official noted that YYAA’s tackle football program has hundreds of members but less than three percent of those members have sustained a concussion. YYAA’s football program convenes for practice three times a week but hitting is limited to only once a week. The program, like many other leagues, adheres to the National Federation of State High School Associations’ football guidelines.

Flash Russo is the president and head coach of the Kings County Chiefs, a non-profit tackle football program which allows players 10 and under to play tackle. (The team has a 10 & under team and a 12 & under team.) He believes that youth tackle football is being attacked largely because of the demographic that plays the sport.

Russo, whose program offers free membership to its players, states that low-income athletes who can reap the benefits of playing tackle football will ultimately miss out on what the sport can offer them due to outdated studies. “These reports are coming out from people who played 30 years ago. The level of protection the players have now is a lot different” say Russo, “There is a terror campaign to scare new parents away from football, and the kid that this sport might create opportunities for is scared away.”

Russo’s team convenes for practice six times a week, but he has limited hitting in practice to twice a week.

While Russo limits contact during his league’s practice sessions, he believes that replacing tackle football for either flag or touch football will leave young athletes ill-prepared for competing at a higher level.

Russo believes that youth sports that have similarly high concussion risks but are supported by a more affluent demographic—like soccer, lacrosse, or boxing—are not experiencing the same level of scrutiny as tackle football.

A move to the sidelines

While many coaches defend the sport, some local football supporters who were passionate about tackle football have moved away from it in light of the research. One of those individuals is Julian Swearengin, the former president and chairman of the Downtown Giants, which plays in fields throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Swearengin was a part of the organization since its inception in 2006 as the first youth football league in Manhattan. Swearengin chose to resign in 2011 after he was advised by the Concussion Legacy Foundation that children under the age of 14 should not play tackle football; his league primarily consisted of children under the age of 14.

“Those blows and concussions have a cumulative effect. Later exposure to the sport is thought to be safer,” says Swearengin, “We have long thought of the helmet company as akin to the tobacco company. They can make a safer helmet but they can’t make a safe helmet. They’re made to prevent skull fractures, not brain injuries.”

The Downtown Giants, which offered tackle football to children as young as six, rejected Swearengin’s proposition to offer only flag football to youths under the age of 10 as an alternative, prompting his resignation.

A champion of ending youth tackle football from New York state is Bronx assemblyman Michael Benedetto, who has introduced a bill that would ban the playing of tackle football for youths under the age of 14. His bill has had much publicity but has gained little support since it was first introduced six years ago.

Benedetto feels that the recently published research can bring more attention to his cause. “This report which has come on seems to show for the first time that the longer you play, the earlier you start, the worse that you seem to get.” says Benedetto, “Even if you take all of [those other factors] into consideration—they can have the best coaches, and the best tackling techniques—t hat’s still not gonna solve the problem because you’re still tackling, you’re still bringing kids to the ground.”

Benedetto agrees that the nature of football has changed over the years but does not believe that the changes have been sufficient and says more should be done to protect young athletes.

“I don’t want to see the end of football; I love the sport. I think it’s a wonderful team sport. But if you don’t do something, you’re going to have a lack of people playing and what will happen to the sport?” says Benedetto. “By making adjustments in the sport at an early age, trying to protect children the way they should be protected, you are in fact possibly preserving football rather than hurting it in the long run.”

Benedetto has yet to secure the support of a state senator to introduce the bill in that chamber but believes that the mounting research will generate support for his bill.

Parents split

In spite of the drop in participation in youth tackle football, there are parents who continue to enroll their children in the sport despite the studies that have emerged.

One such parent is Maurice Brown, who was in attendance for his son’s game at John V. Lindsay East River Park. Brown, who played football in high school, can attest to how much the sport has changed since he last played and has confidence in the coaching that his child is receiving.

“It’s a lot safer now, even the tackling. You don’t use your head anymore” says Brown “It’s not as dangerous as people think. Do the research for yourself, don’t just listen to what you hear.”

Brown states that youth tackle football is a sport that promotes family and community values, and that doing away with it would be a disservice to the young men who prosper from playing it.

There are, however, parents who regret their child’s participation in the sport. Carol O’Malley of the Bronx advocates for flag and touch football as opposed to tackle football so as to prevent young athletes from enduring the same ordeal as her son, Ryan.

O’Malley’s son was a promising football athlete who began playing tackle football in the early nineties at the age of 10. By the time her Ryan had reached college, his aspirations to play at a collegiate level were compromised as he had begun to exhibit symptoms of a debilitating neurological condition. “It’s all the repetitive hits to the head. These injuries cannot be prevented by a helmet,” says O’Malley “We just want to get parents to know what they could get their child into.”

A New York City Council bill introduced in 2014 would require the presence of a doctor at all youth football games. It is currently laid over in committee.

Coaches, such as Russo of the Kings County Chiefs, feel that if legislation like this were to be passed it would drain non-profit organizations, such as his own, of funds.

The bill is set to die at the end of this Council session, in December. But it could be re-introduced in the new year—just like the helmets and pads of the city’s youth football teams, which will go into storage when the fall season ends in coming weeks but come out again when the weather warms and it’s time for another season of hits.