Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Heads Up Youth Football Programs Design a Safety Plan to Battle Dwindling Numbers over Injury Concerns

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Heads Up Youth Football Programs Design a Safety Plan to Battle Dwindling Numbers over Injury Concerns

Article excerpt

North Allegheny High School won the WPIAL and PIAA Class AAAA football championships in 2012 with an eye-catching 16-0 record. But at a time when the popularity of football would have been expected to be at an all-time high for the community, North Allegheny's youth leagues saw a sharp 15 percent decline in participation the following year.

North Allegheny is not alone.

Just about every community in Western Pennsylvania has witnessed a similar decline in participation and a lot of the reasons for this have been attributed to parents' concerns about injuries, especially concussions and other head injuries.

One of the area's largest youth leagues, with some help from the Steelers, is taking steps to solve the growing problem.

With an eye toward concussion awareness and an effort to rebuild participation levels, the Greater 19 Youth Football League joined USA Football and its Heads Up national initiative on player safety this year.

The Greater 19 league includes teams from Allegheny, Butler, Westmoreland and Washington counties. Bethel Park, Canon-McMillan, Keystone Oaks, North Allegheny, Norwin, Peters Township, Seneca Valley, South Fayette, South Park, Thomas Jefferson and Upper St. Clair have formed a competitive league with players who feed into some of the most tradition-rich high school programs in the WPIAL and the state.

Teams from those communities experienced a 15 percent decline in participation in the past year. As a result, its board voted to make it mandatory for all teams in the league to join USA Football this year. The hope is the Heads Up program will convince parents the league's coaches are well-informed and instructed on safety measures, including tackling techniques that reduce the risk of head injuries.

"We're trying to do everything we can to become a positive influence and make kids play football again," Greater 19 president Joe Scarillo said. "We're doing everything we can to make it a positive experience for players, coaches and parents."

In 2012, the Greater 19 league fielded 76 teams in all youth age groups (6 to 13). Last year the league was able to field only 66 teams. Enrollment is ongoing for this year, but the number is likely to decrease again.

When youth coaches ask parents why they are not signing their kids up for football, they tend to get the same answer. Parents, especially mothers, are concerned about head injuries.

"We see the numbers," said Pierre Khoury, the president of Seneca Valley youth football. "It's always a concern for us. That's why we're trying to be proactive and trying to raise awareness. I think we have an awareness issue. And until we address that, there really is no answer to it."

The Steelers are paying half the costs associated with getting Greater 19 coaches certified by USA Football. Hopewell, Monaca and Mount Pleasant were part of the Heads Up pilot program last year, but the Greater 19 league is the first "top 500" league in the area to join.

A top 500 league is representative of one of the 500 largest youth football leagues in the country. There are seven other top 500 leagues in Western Pennsylvania and the Steelers have committed money to helping those leagues if they join in the future.

Declining youth football participation is a nationwide trend. In March, the NFL allocated a $45 million grant to USA Football to support the growth of youth football. According to the NFL, more than 2,700 youth leagues registered for the Heads Up program, representing approximately 600,000 players and 90,000 coaches.

In the Pittsburgh area, some locales have experienced bigger declines in participation than others.

For the Keystone Oaks area, which has a Class AA high school program that serves Castle Shannon, Dormont and Green Tree, the association will not have a team for 6 and 7 year olds this season because they could not get enough kids to sign up. …

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