Football participation numbers declining across state

SOUTHERN OREGON — Football has been a tradition in the U.S. for almost 150 years. It’s also America’s most popular professional sport by a large margin. However, over the last decade multiple studies have shown a link between football and a degenerative brain disorder.

That national discussion has led many athletes to give up the game from the pros to the kids, for safety reasons.

While Oregon has rules in place for full contact practices, none are as strict as the new law enacted by California this year. It’s cut the amount of full-contact practice by more than 50 percent for high school students and other youth.

Across Oregon, high school football participation is declining. The Oregon School Activities Association, or OSAA, says in the fall of 2010 there were just under 14, 500 football players in the state. This past year, it was less than 12,000.

The drop is more pronounced in Portland, but it can be found in southern Oregon.

“Head injuries in contact sports are definitely a concern,” Dr. Todd Clevenger, Southern Oregon Orthopedics, said.

Ashland and North and South Medford have all seen declines, between 11 and 25 players last year, compared to their decade average.

While there are many factors at play, safety is the number one concern of parents and students according to local football experts.

“I think when the concern for concussions came out. You know when you hear about the NFL players, the suicide rate amongst NFL players and they trace that back to brain trauma. I think that sent a shock wave that we better start paying closer attention,” Clay Rounsaville, Grants Pass High School Athletic Director, said.

People are paying attention, according to several national studies that show football participation is down. But it’s not the case everywhere.

In Josephine County, the number of high schoolers playing football is fairly consistent this decade. Illinois Valley and Hidden Valley have had steady participation. Grants Pass has even seen growth. Last year the cavemen had 131 players. This was the most it had all decade.

“Football has always been really big in Grants Pass,” Rounsaville said.

But no matter how popular it is in your town, local football experts say they’re working to make the game safer for kids. There’s an increased emphasis on tackling technique at all levels.

“Takes the head out of play, which significantly reduces the amount of concussions,” Dan Woodward, South Medford High School JV Coach, said.

All high school and youth coaches have to be certified by USAA football, which includes concussion awareness training.

“When in doubt, sit them out,” Woodward said.

At the high school level trainers also watch for unusual symptoms on and off the field.

“Repeated blows to the head is not good, especially for a developing kid,” Dr. Clevenger said.

Dr. Todd Clevenger is an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine at Southern Oregon Orthopedics in Medford. He thinks California’s new law limiting full contact practices to 30 minutes per day twice a week, rather than 90 in high school, could be beneficial. It also requires a medical professional to be at all games. An independent person must also be at practices who is able to remove a player from the field showing any signs of injury.

“Certainly for younger kids I don’t see any problem with airing on the side of limiting contact,” Dr. Clevenger said.

Greg Reeser is the commissioner of Rogue Valley Youth Football.

“Our rules require, or limit I should say, how much contact and what kind of contact,” Reeser said.

The league has roughly 500 kids this fall in 2nd through 6th grade.

“Tackle football requires passion. You have to love the game,” Reeser said.

Reeser says new equipment and teaching proper tackling is reducing the risk to kids.

“We don’t want to see any kids get hurt,” Rounsaville said.

“The game is getting safe, by no means can you eliminate injury in any sport,” Woodward said.

Concussions aren’t solely found in football. They’re common in many sports including hockey, lacrosse, basketball and soccer.  Even sports with little contact, like track and field carries injury risks.

That hasn’t stopped people from trying to make football safer for kids. Nationally, flag football popularity has surged past tackle for kids 12 and under, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.

“You still get injuries from cutting too hard or still tripping over another player, but certainly flag football is going to be a lot lower risk than, than contact football,” Dr. Clevenger said.

While there are flag football leagues in the Rogue Valley, few are available through the schools.

“I think the heightened alert that we have on those things has definitely brought more attention to it, which is not a bad thing,” Rounsaville said.

Dr. Clevenger says kids and their parents are now focusing on one particular sport earlier than ever. It’s called sport specialization. He says it can result in more overuse and fatigue injuries.

He says instead, kids should play many different sports. The important thing, is they’re active, and parents know the risks that come with each.

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