Tuesday, May 30, 2017

SPORTS STORY >> Safer helmets are good start

Leader sports editor

There’s a 30-year-old, little-known country music song that opens by opining a cappella, “There may not be a Super Bowl in 2083.”

It was just a line to lead into the enduring legacy of honky tonks, and was never meant to be taken as a serious social predictor, but it could be right. Kids aren’t playing football at near the frequency as they used to, and the numbers are continuing to go down.

Sports equipment companies have lately been teaming up with organizations and coaches to try to change that. Lonoke, where football participation has been on a recent decline, is taking steps to address one key reason the decline is happening, player safety.

The Riddell sports equipment company issued a press release last week about the Lonoke football program purchasing the latest technology to help prevent head trauma for every football player in grades 7-12.

Every Jackrabbit who takes the field in the upcoming season will be wearing a helmet equipped with sensors and communication equipment that will send impact-severity data to a monitor on the sideline.

Head trauma can be difficult to detect, and the obvious aim of the new technology is to keep players from suffering further damage if a major, potentially dangerous, impact has taken place.

The not-so obvious aim of this technology is to try to stem the tide of waning participation numbers in a game that has endured a lot of bad press in recent years over the long-term negative effects of playing football.

With 2016 numbers so-far unavailable, the numbers from 2009 to 2015 aren’t good. Youth participation in ages 6-12 dropped by 291,000. In 2009, 1,521,000 kids participated in football. In 2015, that was down to 1,230,000.

Once in junior high and high school, the numbers fall even more drastically.

In 2009, there were 1,703,000 students playing organized football. That went up in 2010 and again in 2011, where participation peaked at 2,038,000. In 2015, that was down to 1,566,000. That’s almost a half million kids saying no to the United States’ most commercially successful sport, in just four years. That’s a loss of more 100,000 players every year since 2011.

Safety isn’t the only reason for that, but it is the major one. One only has to look at the sidelines on any given fall Friday night in Arkansas to see numbers are down. Reasons vary with each team.

A year before the inaugural season of the new Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District, the old North Pulaski Falcons could not even produce enough players to field a team. Never making the playoffs since 1977 had something to do with that.

Some schools may have unpopular coaches. Some student-athletes at certain schools have said they quit because the required conditioning was too hard. There’s also the increasing pressure for athletes to specialize in one sport, despite mountains of research that says it’s better for kids to take part in multiple activities.

But the overarching issue is safety. The NFL has created its own public relations nightmare for years by taking its cue from the tobacco industry and denying there are any safety concerns at all. NFL executives would do this while former players were going public with some catastrophic lifetime injuries. Most of them were impact-trauma related. Many others were spinal and knee-related.

Lonoke is taking the right steps to do everything it can to ensure the safety of its student-athletes, but most schools can’t afford what Lonoke got. Lonoke schools spent $52,000 on 180 units, which comes to about $290 per helmet. To buy just one from Riddell would cost $549.

It remains to be seen whether this new technology will curb the decreasing numbers. It’s also unclear if it will even reduce injuries. Finding out sooner that there has been head trauma doesn’t stop the trauma. But it does, at least, keep the player from returning to the game with an undetected injury.