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Hansen: Youth football versus soccer: injury statistics tell the story

Football helmet

Youth football is about to begin and with it, parental worry over the safety of their children.

(Photo by David Hansen)

You will see them soon on scorched fields, running around with fancy helmets, butting heads like rams.

“Heads up,” the coaches will yell. “Heads up.”

It’s a slogan now with Pop Warner football to help address safety concerns.

After a hard hit, a burly kid from Tustin, Mission Viejo or Huntington Beach will go to the sideline and squeeze Gatorade through his mask, just like the pros do.

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Every kid wants to be a pro. And if he knows, deep down, that he will never turn pro, at least he wants to look like one.

Youth sports is a $7-billion business that encourages these dreams — complete with its own sports-related bling. Visit any local sporting goods store and see the oversized pictures of guys like Brett Favre hawking some new widget.

Kids with saggy, silken shorts and pumped-up high tops will scavenge the aisles like they are on some video game quest.

But while they gawk over the latest and greatest accessories, the safety products two aisles over sit like unwanted toys.

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For example, boys don’t look at the Kerr Collar, which is essentially a neck brace to avoid catastrophic injury. It was created a couple years ago, and at $150 for a molded piece of hard foam, it goes to show what parents will pay for a little extra piece of mind.

Officially, Pop Warner football claims the sport is safer than soccer. Unofficially, no one believes that.

“Did you know that Pop Warner football is safer than soccer?” says the group on the front page of its website. “Pop Warner football has 12% fewer injuries per capita among 5-15 year olds than organized soccer in the same age range!”

Pop Warner cited the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS). But according to a comprehensive review by Safe Kids Worldwide, a global children’s advocacy group, those same statistics yielded vastly different results and a much more realistic picture. For the full report visit: bit.ly/SafeKidsStudy.

Globally, there are about 14 million soccer players ages 12 to 17. They have just over 100,000 injuries every year.

Youth football, on the other hand, has fewer players at about 9 million but more than 275,000 injuries, or nearly three times as many.

To say that football is safer than soccer does a disservice to families trying to make informed decisions about the safety of their children, critics say.

The statistics are hard to ignore.

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“In 2012, more than 1.35 million children ages 19 and under were seen in emergency departments for injuries related to 14 commonly played sports,” according to Safe Kids. “In fact, sports injuries make up 20 percent of all injury-related emergency department visits for children ages 6 to 19.”

In addition, every 3 minutes a child is seen in an emergency department for a sports-related concussion, according to the group. It’s not surprising, then, that the medical costs for these ongoing injuries total almost $1 billion a year.

Think of it this way. There was a scene in the movie “Concussion” where a naysaying doctor, beholden to the corporate interests of the National Football League, tried to argue his way out of the moral quagmire by predicting doom instead.

“If just 10% of the mothers in America decide that football’s too dangerous for their sons to play, that is it,” he said. “It is the end of football.”

Football will survive because kids still want to play. They’ve drunk the Gatorade.

One of my three teenage sons played Pop Warner football for a couple years. He was a tight end, small for his age but with “great hands,” the coach said.

Every play, it seemed, he slanted up the middle and jumped high in the air. And when he came down, he felt the hit.

Sometimes it was head to head; other times it just knocked the wind out of him.

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I held my breath every time.

I remember I wanted to be at every game, not to see the final score, but to be there in case something happened. He is my son, and if he got hurt, I wanted to do everything in my power to help him.

I think most parents feel the same way.

We don’t want to say to our kids, for no reason, “No, you can’t do that.” We just want some level of confidence that our children are safe.

Granted, youth football will always be dangerous. So is teen driving. So is riding a bicycle.

But soccer is not football.

And every fall, like clockwork, that reality will become painfully apparent.

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DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at hansen.dave@gmail.com.


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