Pop Warner, the nation’s oldest youth football program, announced Thursday that it has become the first national football organization to eliminate kickoffs.
The ban will take effect in the three youngest divisions when the season begins this fall. The organization said it’s aimed at significantly reducing the number of full-speed, head-on impacts in games.
After the season, Pop Warner said it will evaluate the results and consider implementing the kickoff ban in older divisions as well.
Pop Warner leagues have 225,000 football players in the U.S., and another 100,000 youths in cheerleading and dance programs.
“We are constantly working to make the game safer and better for our young athletes, and we think this move is an important step in that direction,” said Jon Butler, Pop Warner’s executive director, in a statement. “Eliminating kickoffs at this level adds another layer of safety without changing the nature of this great game. We are excited to look at the results at the end of the year as we explore additional measures.”
Instead of kickoffs, the ball will be placed at the 35-yard line at the start of each half and after each score in all Tiny Mite (5 to 7 years old), Mitey Mite (ages 7-9) and Junior Pee Wee (ages 8-10) games.
Pop Warner also announced Thursday a further reduction of contact time in practice across all divisions. Pop Warner will now restrict contact to approximately 25% of practice time; it previously was 33%.
Pop Warner is moving to further improve player safety at a time when the sport of football — from youth leagues to the NFL — is grappling with concerns over concussions and their long-term impact on the brain. In 2012, Pop Warner became the first youth football organization to limit contact during practices. Rules forbid full-speed, head-on blocking or tackling drills in which the players line up more than 3 yards apart.
Additionally, in 2010, Pop Warner implemented a concussion policy requiring that any player removed from a game or practice because of a head injury could not return to league activities until receiving written clearance by a licensed medical professional trained in the evaluation and management of concussions.
In March, Pop Warner settled a brain-injury lawsuit filed by the family of a 25-year-old man whose suicide allegedly resulted from concussions in league play starting at age 11. Joseph Chernach hung himself in his mother’s shed on June 7, 2012, and “a substantial factor” in the suicide was his chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the brain disease that is linked to concussions, according to the lawsuit filed by his mother, Debra Pyka.
Pop Warner didn’t disclose the terms of the settlement. The lawsuit was filed in Wisconsin against Pop Warner and its insurer in February 2015 and sought $5 million in damages.
In March, the NFL first publicly acknowledged a link between CTE and playing football. Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president of health and safety policy, was appearing before the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce when Rep. Jan Schakowsky asked him directly: “Mr. Miller, do you think there is a link between football and degenerative brain disorders like CTE?”
“The answer to that question is certainly yes,” Miller said.
Since that admission, Tracy Scroggins, a defensive end for the Detroit Lions from 1992-2001, filed a lawsuit against the NFL, seeking $5 million. The suit says Scroggins has a preliminary diagnosis of CTE, the result of repeated head trauma. CTE is only definitively diagnosed after death.
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy previously told CNN the league expects the lawsuit will be dismissed, because Scroggins is part of a previous NFL concussion settlement class.
In 2015, a federal judge approved a class-action lawsuit settlement between the NFL and thousands of former players. The agreement provides up to $5 million per retired player for serious medical conditions associated with repeated head trauma.