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Behind NFL glitz, less appeal for kids to play

Quarterback Jared Goff, right, huddles with children and other athletes during an NFL Play 60 event at Grant Park, a day before picked No. 1 overall by the Los Angeles Rams. Photo by Kiichiro Sato, AP.

Whether it’s Monday Night Football, a glitzy Super Bowl or the annual draft, you can always count on a great show by the NFL.

That’s why the league rakes in billions. The NFL is projected to make more than $13.3 billion in total revenue this year. It’s on track to meet Commissioner Roger Goodell’s stated goal of $25 billion by 2027.

So it might sound odd that the future of this wildly successful enterprise depends on kids. Reeling them in, whether they’re pint-sized 8-year-olds or beefier 14-year-olds, is a lifeline to continued success. The weekend’s NFL Draft Town celebration in Grant Park included a bunch of activities for kids, from an on-field clinic for boys and girls to a quarterback challenge.

The exhilaration associated with the game masks its flip side: Tackle football is dangerous. That reality is hitting home for parents and kids.

The NFL faces the real possibility of declining popularity among kids, much of it attributed to concussions. So far the drop has been slight. There was a 4.4 percent drop nationally in tackle football from 2011 to 2015 among 6- to 14-year-olds, the Chicago Tribune reported Friday. Participation in high school football is at a five-year low. In addition to concern about concussions, the Tribune cited more interest in soccer and kids focusing on one sport instead of playing multiple sports as reasons for the drop. But the less attractive football looks, the more likely it becomes for kids to seek an alternative.


The newspaper cited a 2014 study that found primary concerns for parents whose children played sports were injuries and quality of coaches. When it came to injuries, 56.1 percent of mothers and 41.7 percent of fathers feared concussions and head injuries.

Last year the Journal of American Medical Association Pediatrics published a report that found one in 30 football players 5 to 14 years old sustain at least one concussion each season. Among high school players, it’s one in 14. Concussions were more common than broken bones.

That pretty well sucks the life out of the oohs and aahs extolled by enthusiastic fans who like to see blockbuster hits and tackles. Hits can have lifelong consequences for players, especially if those hits are blows to the brain. There are risks of head injuries in every sport, but tackle football has the highest rate of concussions among athletes in high school.

No wonder some say football is losing its appeal.

“There is more concern about the sport than ever before,” Kurt Laakso, the associate superintendent for Arlington Heights-based High School District 214 told the Tribune. “People are talking openly about the health risks, and the awareness and anxiety about that is peaking. That could be part of a growing awareness — or perhaps revulsion — of what these risks do to a person’s life going forward.”

Parents can no longer sit back and wonder about possible dangers. Brain experts have weighed in with warnings. It’s up to parents to consider the risks and rewards. As a form of exercise, football can provide important cardiovascular benefits. Yet, like boxing, hitting is inherent.

Lately, the NFL is playing catch up and putting greater emphasis on safety. It promotes Heads Up Football, a national initiative at the youth and high school levels to address concussions, heat-related illnesses and sudden cardiac arrest. It also emphasizes proper blocking and tackling techniques to mitigate injuries.

We hesitate to take the NFL’s word on safety. For decades the league had an ugly record of denial about the dangers of head injuries. Lawmakers and retired players compared the NFL to the tobacco industry for trying to minimize dangers.

If you’re deciding whether to sign up your child, whether it’s a peewee league or a high school team, find out about the team’s protocol on concussions and make sure there is a doctor or certified athletic trainer at all practices and games. In Illinois many high schools do not employ athletic trainers, citing the expense.

No one can claim ignorance about the risks. Parents must own their choices.

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