OVERLAND PARK, Kan. - Enrollment in the nation's largest youth football league is down almost 10 percent since 2010, and medical experts believe parental awareness and concern about concussions and other head injuries could be the primary cause.
Pop Warner Football said their enrollment dipped by more than 23,000 players in the last two years, from a high of more than 248,000 players to just 225,000 in 2012. Other youth football associations showed similar dips, according to ESPN.com and Pop Warner's chief medical editor told ESPN concerns about head injuries are "the No. 1 cause."
"While many youth sports have seen fluctuations there is no hard data that links participation numbers with the fear of concussions. We believe athletes choose to play or not play specific sports based on a number of reasons," Executive Director of Pop Warner Little Scholars Jon Butler told 41 Action News in a statement. "When it comes to concussions, though, Pop Warner has been out front on the issue."
Dr. Randy Goldstein is the director of youth sports for the University of Kansas Hospital and studies brain injuries in young athletes. He sees awareness of concussion risks as one of several reasons younger athletes may be abandoning youth football.
"Concussions are part of the equation. So is specialization of sport," Dr. Goldstein said. "People who were playing two or three sports a year may now only be playing one."
In Kansas City, that one sport is increasingly soccer, with anecdotal evidence suggesting younger athletes in the metro prefer the beautiful game over American football anyway.
Duncan Haines Mills is one youth football player who might find himself changing sports soon, after a concussion in the Kaw Valley Football 6th grade championship game two weeks ago kept him out of school for days and leaves lingering symptoms still.
"My head was like a hammer getting hit... by a bigger hammer," the 11-year-old nose tackle recalled. "This was the worst game ever."
His mother, who said she and other parents and coaches felt this particular game was out-of-hand, said she had not decided whether she would let her son play football again next season, if he asked.
"He wants to play football next year. If he's medically cleared to play football next year we will let him play football. He wants to play and he loves the game," Haines Mills said. "We'll see. It's hard for a mom to put him back in there after that. We'll see."