Athletic association sees large drop in football registrants

In recent years, the conversation around the game of football has shifted drastically. Once a game that any parent would allow their child to play without hesitation, football has become a polarizing topic of discussion.

Parents, former players, even President Obama all say they would not allow their young children to play football due to the increasing information being discovered about head injuries and their long-term effects. The Medford Youth Athletic Association is seeing the results of that conversation firsthand.

According to the MYAA, its football program has seen a 35 percent drop in registrants from last season alone, and an almost 50 percent drop since 2008.

Bill Rieger, a coach with the MYAA, has made speaking with parents and educating them on potential risks a priority. He and other coaches have held open houses to have an honest dialogue with parents.

“The goal is just getting our message out there, help parents understand that our first priority for their kids is safety,” Rieger said. “We spend the time showing the right way to tackle, the right way, the safe way to play the game.”

Rieger and other MYAA coaches have also adapted how they practice in limiting repetitions, the amount of hitting and the length of practices.

“We’re aware of parents’ concerns and we definitely understand them. We’re making changes on our end to address those concerns as best we can,” Rieger said. “There’s definitely a myth that football is still barbarians ‘saying water makes you weak’ and running kids into the ground. That’s not the case with our program.”

Rieger has been in regular contact with Shawnee High School’s head football coach Tim Gushue to discuss how the game has changed and to partner with him to ensure the game is being taught the same way for kids 6 years old to teenagers at the high school level.

The perception problem, as Rieger describes it, starts at the NFL level.

“It’s funny that if you watch the commercials the NFL makes about kids playing, they’re playing flag football not tackle, and the ads with players interacting with kids aren’t on the football field they’re on playgrounds. What are parents going to think when even in the NFL’s commercials, kids aren’t playing football?” Rieger said.

“Obviously the NFL is an entirely different game. Six, 7, 8-year-old kids are not playing with the same level of violence and ferocity that people see on television. Most times, at this level, the play ends because kids trip over their own feet,” Rieger said.

But as the conversation continues to turn against football and more head trauma research is revealed, Rieger worries whether the program may even exist in another five years.

“Our biggest dropoff is at the youngest level. That’s the feeder system for age groups going forward,” Rieger said. “It’s tough to say what may happen in the future, but we’ll continue to work to play the game safely and address parent’s concerns.”

You can sign your child up for youth football, or any other fall sports offered by the MYAA, online at www.myaa.net.