By CHRIS JENKINS, Associated Press
Already uneasy about the idea of letting her 7-year-old son Jason start playing tackle football, Elizabeth Giancarli made up her mind when former NFL star Junior Seau committed suicide.
While many of her son's friends are moving on to tackle, he'll be playing another year of flag football.
"I just couldn't put him in tackle football, only because of everything that's been going on," Giancarli said. "I think that the Junior Seau suicide really hit home, too. So we decided to put him in another year of flag, because the impact is significantly less."
Giancarli hasn't ruled out the possibility of letting her son play tackle when he gets older. But she hopes he won't want to.
"I hate to take that experience away from him, especially since we all love the game so much," Giancarli said. "But I just don't know if it's worth it."
That's a tough thing to say for Giancarli, a Tampa Bay Buccaneers season-ticket holder who drives all the way from the Fort Lauderdale area to attend games. But she's among parents nationwide who have felt compelled to reconsider whether football is safe enough for their children amid a steady flow of reports on the potential long-term effects of repeated head injuries, an ever-growing list of concussion lawsuits filed by former NFL players against the league, and the New Orleans Saints bounty controversy.
Plus, now, the death at age 43 of Seau, a star linebacker for two decades.
Although it is not clear why Seau killed himself earlier this month, his death advanced what already was an uncomfortable national conversation about the hidden consequences of playing football.
And while it is too early to establish a link between parents' safety concerns and football's popularity, there are indications that fewer kids across the country are putting on pads.
Research from the National Sporting Goods Association indicates overall football participation across all age ranges has decreased from 10.1 million in 2006 to 9 million in 2011, with the most significant drops in the 12-17 and 18-24 age groups.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, the number of high school boys playing 11-man football rose from 886,840 in 1992-93 to 1,112,303 in 2008-09. But after 16 years of nearly uninterrupted growth, the number of players has declined slightly during the two most recent years for which data was available: to 1,109,278 in 2009-10 and 1,108,441 in 2010-11. The number of youths participating in less common forms of the game — 9-player, 8-player and 6-player football — also fell slightly in the two most recent years available.
The decline doesn't appear to be a function of school budget cutbacks. According to the NFHS data, the number of high schools offering 11-player football continues to increase.
NFHS director of sports and sports medicine Bob Colgate says the small decline hasn't raised red flags among high school sports administrators and may be the result of normal fluctuation in class sizes.
Dr. Michael Koester, a pediatric sports medicine specialist in Eugene, Ore., who has advised the NFHS, says it's too early to connect a downward trend with parents' safety concerns — but says the numbers are worth watching, especially in youth football.
"I think it would be difficult to read anything into that at this point," Koester said. "I think we really have to look at what those high school numbers do over a four- or five-year period of time. And maybe more importantly at this time would be trying to get an idea from Pop Warner, from USA Football, see what's happening at the lower levels. I think if we're going to see a culture shift from a participation standpoint, I suspect that we're going to see it more at those lower levels, where parents are going to be deciding there's just no reason for their 7-, 8- or 9-year-old to be out there playing.
"And frankly, I support them in that. My son didn't start playing until he was 12."
USA Football says participation in youth football has been relatively stable in recent years, at about 3 million kids — but USA Football executive director Scott Hallenbeck acknowledges that may change, given parents' concerns about safety.