PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) — Thousands of young athletes are still playing football, but the number putting on pads and helmets is down sharply.
While one of the larger youth tackle football organizations in the area saw a significant decline in players over the past five years, a youth flag football league has exploded, jumping from about 100 to 1,100 players during the same time period.
Rapheal Dowdye founded the Next Level Performance Academy (NLPA), predicting flag football will end up feeding tackle programs, not replacing them.
“There are a lot of feeder programs to keep the game alive,” Dowdye said. “So now you have a 50-50 split. Kids who go, ‘Oh, I want to try tackle now.’ Or, ‘I just love flag football.'”
Barrington was hit with the most dramatic change when a lack of interest forced the town of 16,000 to end its nearly 50-year Pop Warner tackle tradition after the 2016 season.
Seth Fisher played in the league as a kid and coached tackle as an adult.
“For like three years, we saw it happening. Slowly declining,” Fisher said. “Last year we only had 25 kids sign up for all ages for tackle.”
Barrington was part of the Rhode Island Southeastern Massachusetts Conference (RISMA), one of only a few of the 45 area youth tackle organizations that responded to a request from Target 12 for participation statistics.
RISMA Assistant Commissioner Graham Sellar said Pop Warner has made changes that have the conference “back on track to increasing” its number of players in the coming seasons.
The league had 1,300 players on 53 teams in 13 communities in 2015.
The total tumbled by about 44% in 2017 – the first season without Barrington.
Since then, the total has pushed upward by about 31% with 961 players and 40 teams last season, but the number is still down compared to 2015.
Pawtucket’s Darlington Braves added teams to their tackle program this season but coaches still talk about how many used to play.
“There wasn’t enough space to practice,” coach Zack Ortega said. “Youth-wise, you see not as many as you used to see.”
Coaches agree that the fear of injury and more awareness about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) – a condition brought on by multiple concussions – are the main factors for shrinking participation.
Ortega said leagues are better about teaching safe tackling form, without helmet-to-helmet contact, and coaches are better trained in how to recognize concussion symptoms.
But when Ortega played about a decade ago, the game looked different.
“Someone comes down the field on a kickoff, helmet to helmet and his facemask bends,” Ortega said. “You just replace it. Check him. Are you good? Yeah, I’m good coach. Put me back in.”
Ortega said, “now we ask those concussion protocol questions.”
Six states are considering legislation to set age limits for who can play tackle football.
In Massachusetts, the proposed “No Hits” bill would fine a league for allowing anyone younger than eighth grade to play tackle football.
During an October committee hearing on the measure, which is sponsored by Westport State Rep. Paul A. Schmid, Dr. Chris Nowinski from Boston University’s CTE Center put it this way: “The issue with football is if you start at age five you might have 10 times the risk of developing CTE as someone who starts at age 14.”
A 2017 study by the University of Iowa concluded, “flag football has a higher injury rate than tackle football.”
But the study also shows players hurt from tackle football need more time to return to the field, implying the injuries were more serious.
Fisher believes injury concerns are only one reason for the decline in tackle football participation, adding that his parents were worried when he played.
He also pointed to the fact that young Rhode Islanders have more options now and some are choosing to specialize in one sport year-round.
“There’s year-round lacrosse. Soccer,” Fisher said. “There are more opportunities to play sports other than football and more programs as well.”