As football’s caretakers – from high school to professional – continue to act in response to heightened concerns about player safety, one area seems to have slipped through the cracks.
Without an overarching governing body, youth football has become a virtual untamed frontier, with some programs adhering to standards but many others making up their own rules.
Recognizing the void, the OSAA has spearheaded a collaborative effort to provide safety guidelines for youth programs in Oregon. Together with the state’s coaches, athletic directors, officials and trainers, the OSAA football ad-hoc committee has drawn up a youth football position statement that outlines its stance on the best practices for programs.
“While we have a long reach, we don’t reach that far,” said OSAA assistant executive director Brad Garrett, a member of the USA Football board of directors. “But it’s become pretty apparent that moving forward, if we’re going to build a continuum of football, that we’re going to have to develop and foster relationships at the youth level in order to do that. Part of that is establishing some baseline expectations.”
The position statement is endorsed by the Oregon Athletic Coaches Association, Oregon Athletic Directors Association, Oregon Athletic Officials Association and the Oregon Athletic Trainers Society. No other state association has taken such a step to bring youth football programs in line.
“We’re taking care of our own house,” Garrett said.
OSAA executive director Peter Weber said that “keeping the youth game as safe as possible” is integral to the health of high school football.
“If we’re doing good things at the high school level and making changes, but the youth level isn’t coming along, as well, we’re not going to have the numbers to work with at the high school level,” Weber said.
The statement includes guidelines for season length, practice limitations and positional versatility. It recommends capping seasons at eight games and not allowing 11-player tackle until the seventh grade, although teams in grades 5-6 can play “rookie tackle,” a USA Football modification that provides a bridge between flag football and 11-man tackle.
Other recommendations include:
- All youth coaches should be Heads Up certified annually
- Youth programs using school district facilities should provide adequate insurance
- Participation fees should be minimized as much as possible
- Programs should follow Oregon youth concussion laws
“I’m asking them to change to ensure the future of the game,” Garrett said. “I’m appealing to their sentiment and their common sense, that what we’re currently doing is not working.
“We don’t think we’re being unreasonable here. What we’re trying to do is find a way to work together because we’re both suffering from the same symptoms. And we’ve got to find a way to change that.”
Jeff Peeler, assistant district athletic director for the Portland Interscholastic League, is in a unique position to see how youth programs receive the position statement. He not only is a member of the OSAA football ad-hoc committee, but he has spent the past two years on the board of the Tualatin Valley Youth Football League, which includes about 70 programs in the Portland area.
Peeler said that advocating for the position statement to youth programs is a delicate issue that requires diplomacy from the OSAA and high school coaches, some of whom have encountered a less-than-receptive audience at TVYFL meetings.
The youth programs, many of them volunteer-driven, "don't have any actual real ties to the high school program, so you get this weird dynamic,” Peeler said.
The PIL is unusual in that its youth programs are run by the district, which makes it seamless to adopt an overarching policy. Still, Peeler is an advocate for other youth programs to get on board.
“I tend to lean toward the side of the spectrum that defers to the actual experts,” Peeler said. “What I like about it is that it’s proactive. I think everything else we’re doing … isn’t being proactive, it’s reactionary.”
Weber recognizes that the OSAA is not in position to dictate policy to youth programs.
“They don’t have to listen to us,” Weber said. “But our hope is that they’ll listen to the coaches and the expertise – the medical stuff, all those things we’ve developed over the last couple years – and try to make some changes to affect some positive change in the game.”
With participation levels dropping for high school and youth football in the past decade, Garrett believes it is imperative to act quickly to reverse the trend.
“I’m not in the market to find something to stop the bleeding, I’m about finding methods to grow the game,” Garrett said.
Garrett, who met with leaders from 66 youth football programs at a summit in Wilsonville in 2017, has made himself available to discuss the policies with youth representatives across the state. He is hopeful that all will get on board by as soon as 2020.
“I know there’s a vast majority of support to go down this road,” Garrett said.
Even if youth programs already are following many of the guidelines, Garrett still anticipates pushback on some of the recommendations, in particular the earliest age to begin tackle football.
“They may be playing grade 3-4 tackle still. I’m asking them to quit doing that, and trying to provide some rationale for it,” Garrett said.
The OSAA football ad-hoc committee is firm in its stance against tackle football for grades 3-4.
“I like the progression we’re talking about,” said South Medford coach Bill Singler, a member of the committee. “Kids in the lower grades don’t need to be playing tackle. They need to learn the fundamentals of the game, get out and play some flag football, and just learn about the sport.
“I think it’s been proven with all the scientific studies that have gone on, and with the concussion effect, that young kids don’t need to be banging heads at such an early age. Let’s let their bodies and brains develop.”
What incentive would programs have to comply with the position statement? Garrett said that those that adopt it could be recognized as “blue-ribbon” programs by the OSAA. Also, OSAA member schools could require compliance from any youth program that wishes to use district facilities.
Peeler has pushed for the schools to use their leverage when dealing with the youth programs.
“At the end of the day, the youth programs are there to feed the high school,” Peeler said. “If the high school is saying that this is what we need to do, then that’s what we should be doing. But that would be drawing a line in the sand, and I think everyone is appropriately careful about not wanting to draw that line.”
The OSAA believes strongly enough in the policy statement, though, to take the necessary steps to implement it, even if it means ruffling some feathers. Garrett said it’s long past the time that football takes a hard look at how its policies – or lack thereof – are affecting the game at the youth level.
“We have not really paid attention to what other national governing bodies have done in their own sports,” Garrett said. “Look at baseball, hockey, basketball, soccer; they all do a slow introduction to the game by playing modified versions at the younger levels. In football, we’re putting third-graders out on a 54x100-yard field in full gear. Why? It’s not accomplishing anything for us.”
Singler is among the many coaches who plan to meet with their local youth programs in the coming weeks. He is hopeful that youth football representatives will participate in upcoming OSAA committee meetings.
“You have to have dialogue before you just say, ‘Well, this is what we’re doing,’” Singler said. “We need to educate these coaches and directors at different levels around the state so we all understand where everybody’s coming from.
“There’s pushback in anything you do that’s new. But it’s the right thing.”