Are concussion concerns causing a drop in St. Louis-area youth f -

Are concussion concerns causing a drop in St. Louis-area youth football participation?

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High school football. Credit: KMOV High school football. Credit: KMOV

By: Steve Savard, News 4

ST. LOUIS ( -- It’s known as Friday Night Lights, high school football played at the end of every school week.  The stands filled with fellow classmates and parents cheering on the teenage athletes on the field.  But recent studies show the football field is getting less crowded.

Some critics say parents are concerned about CTE: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. CTE can cause diseases linked to football players and other athletes with repetitive brain trauma. News 4 wanted to know if that is having an impact on youth football in our area and if concussion concerns are really behind the drop in players.

Isiah Ogbe, 10, started playing football in kindergarten, but last year, “I broke my arm in practice, somebody's’ helmet went into my wrist area pretty much and it just broke,” he said.

"When he came home screaming, I knew it was a broken arm,” his mother Elyse told News 4. That was the moment she decided she did not want her son playing football anymore.

“He plays soccer, he plays basketball, he plays baseball, he has not incurred any other injuries in any other sports," Ogbe said. "Football is the only one.” 

Across the country, the numbers show participation in youth and high school football is down. News 4 wanted to know if that was the case in Missouri and Illinois.

According to the Missouri State High School Activities Association, there are around 4,000 fewer high schoolers playing football in 2017 compared to ten years ago.

The trend is similar in Illinois. According to the Illinois High School Association, in 2016, 42,682 high school students played football in Illinois. But ten years before that in 2006, 48,844 students participated in football. A drop of 6,162 student-athletes over the ten years.

Critics of contact sports assume the drop in participation stems from fears of injuries, specifically concussions and how they could impact teenagers later in life.

“I think people are much more aware of the risk potential with concussions and I think that is a good thing,” said Dr. Brian Mahaffy, a sports medicine specialist with Mercy Sports Medicine. He speaks to parents all the time about their concerns about their student-athletes having long-term injuries from playing sports at a young age.

“I always tell parents of my patients when we go talk that you have to tell them riskiest thing a teenager can do is get in the car and drive, you have a much higher risk of a head injury when you get in a car, we let teens drive all the time,” said Mahaffy.

Mahaffy also says football gets the most attention, but every physical activity, from the football players on the field to the cheerleaders on the sideline have a risk for concussion.

“People always concentrate on football, the rates are just as high in men’s and women’s soccer, hockey and other sports and I tell teens and their parents, you can get a concussion just as likely walking down the street tripping and hitting your head,” said Mahaffy. 

Dr. Mahaffy says the changes in the way the game is played and having better trained athletic trainers on the sideline have helped high schools better deal with serious injuries over the past decade.

The Parkway School District is one of the largest in the St. Louis area.  They have hundreds of athletes compete each school year and have training staff on hand at every event.

“Our training staff is great at Parkway, we contract out with Mercy Sports Medicine, we have certified sports trainers at every practice, at every game, we have doctors at our Friday night football games,” said Mike Roth, the district’s Athletic Director. 

But the trend of dropping football participation statewide has also impacted Parkway. According to the district, over the past five years, there has been an 18 percent drop in students playing football districtwide.

Bob Bunton has coached at Parkway North High School for nearly 20 years. He thinks more than concerns about concussions are keeping players off the field.

“I think more has to do with the commitment to playing a high school sport, where it’s become year-round,” said Bunton.

Bunton says now players practice over the summer and official practices for fall sports start at the beginning of August. Bunton say the practices of today are much different than from 10 or 20 years ago.

“I don’t think it was necessarily wrong in the old days, but we are smarter have gotten more educated on the brain and the physical toll it takes on a kid’s body,” said Bunton.  He admits the drop in numbers is hurting the program. 

"This year, we had a difficult time fielding a freshman team,” Bunton said. 

Roth reiterates that the district takes precautions for all their activities.

“We see concussions across the board, football, hockey, we see it in cheerleading with all the stunting going on. There is a chance for injury with everything in high school athletics,” said Roth.

Bu at least in Parkway, they have not seen the same drop in participation when it comes to another fall sport with a risk of concussions, soccer.
Over that same five years period, the number of teenagers playing has stayed practically the same.

And while he is still a few years away from high school sports, his mother says Isiaih will be sticking to baseball and soccer and taking a pass on football.

“I’m not going to say other parents should not put their kids in football that’s their decision, but safety-wise, I don’t want to be the parent who could have prevented something,” said Elyse Ogbe.

If coaches, officials or trainers have any other questions about sports concussions, the Brain Injury Association of Missouri is holding a free seminar in early 2018.

Copyright 2017 KMOV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved

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