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Flag football a safer option for youth who want to play

With spring comes Pop Warner football. But with news of former players suing the NFL for not doing enough to prevent head injuries, some parents are thinking twice before enrolling their children in the program.

Michael Castillo’s two children, Timothy, 12, and Cross, 9, tried an introduction to football class at school and liked it so much that they wanted to be in league play. But concerns over contact sports had their father seeking an alternative. He found i9 Sports, 9360 W. Flamingo Road, Suite 110, which holds practices in the Spring Valley area. Though the Castillo family lives in Silverado Ranch, he said he had no qualms about driving that far if it meant his children would be safe.

“I’ve been juggling it a lot, and honestly, I feel a lot better putting them in flag (football) first,” Castillo said. “My biggest thing is I don’t want to see a bad hit on them while they’re growing up, in case something happens on their growth plate. I’ve been hearing a lot about it, actually, from professional football players who would come here to do signings in Las Vegas … and they would say, ‘You know what? Put them in flag and don’t worry about it. Get them into flag, so they learn the fundamentals.’ “

The primary difference in flag football is that it is a no-contact game. Removed are the intentional collisions and helmet-to-helmet contact responsible for the majority of brain injuries that athletes suffer. Instead, defensive players only need to yank the flag off the ball carrier’s belt. Players still learn the skills of running and passing while executing plays.

Pop Warner sign-ups are decreasing. It reported a loss of 23,612 players from 2010-12, the largest decline since the organization began keeping statistics decades ago. Before that, it had seen consistent annual growth. At its height in 2010, 248,899 players were participating in Pop Warner. By 2012, it was down to 225,287.

USA Football, a national governing body partially funded by the NFL, said participation among players ages 6 to 14 fell from 3 million to 2.8 million in 2011, a 6.7 percent decline. Pop Warner and USA Football attribute the decline to the economy and to young athletes specializing in a single sport. But Pop Warner’s chief medical officer, Dr. Julian Bailes, said concerns about concussions or head injuries was “the No. 1 cause” for the dropping numbers.

A spokesman for Pop Warner said that it’s being proactive.

“It’s been a concern at Pop Warner. That’s why we changed our safety rules. We added a concussion rule three years ago,” said Josh Pruce, national director of scholastics and media relations for Pop Warner. “…We reduced our contact rules — that was last year — and we are working with numerous other groups such as ASA Hockey and lacrosse, and we’ve put together a group called the Concussion Coalition to try to help study concussions in youth sport participants.”

He said Pop Warner has a national medical board that worked with the regional staff to develop its “err on the side of caution” policy: When in doubt, sit it out.

“If you have a concussion, you are not allowed to come back to practice or game until you are cleared by a medical doctor,” Pruce said. ” … Safety is our No. 1 priority.”

i9 Sports, i9sports.com, was established nationally about 10 years ago. It has offered flag football since 2003 and has seen continued growth each year of more than 3 percent. Last year saw more than 11 percent growth. It came to the Las Vegas Valley a few months ago. As many as 30 percent or 40 percent of its participants, i9 estimated, are girls. Besides flag football, i9 offers soccer, T-ball, basketball and cheerleading.

“We’re helping kids succeed in life through sports,” said James Campbell, program director. “Basically, i9 puts the fun back in sports. We focus on fun and foundation, not necessarily winning. It’s equal play, equal time for everyone.”

He and his wife, Holly, have four children. All of them grew up playing sports. Campbell said with the national spotlight on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, known as CTE, in major league sports, the switch to flag football is part of the national consciousness.

The couple were at a Foothill High School football game two years ago when one of the players took a vicious hit and went down. He was removed on a stretcher. The Campbells’ now-12-year-old was playing contact football at that point. Witnessing the collision caused the couple to rethink his involvement in the sport.

“And at the time, he hated wearing his helmet,” said Holly Campbell, i9’s area developer. “He would try not to wear it, try not to practice with it. So that scared us.”

James Campbell said the foundations of football should be instilled in a child before he would consider opting for contact football. He suggested that flag football should be played up to age 13 or 14.

Castillo said if his boys asked to play contact football in the future, he said he “would judge them from what they’ve learned and where they’re at (maturity wise), and if it makes sense … I would probably give them my blessing.”

Pop Warner has age and weight metrics to separate youngsters, Pruce said. It offers flag football as an alternative to contact football.

“I can tell you that there are not a lot of flag teams in Pop Warner,” Pruce said. “I would say 95 percent of our teams are tackle. … I think the best thing to do is ask questions. Do some research and go to our website or give us a call at our national (offices). We’re always happy to talk to people. … the more questions you ask, the more information you get. Make an informed decision for yourself.”

For more information on Southern Nevada Pop Warner Football, visit lasvegaspopwarner.com or call 702-873-4096.

Contact Summerlin/Summerlin South View reporter Jan Hogan at jhogan@viewnews.com or 702-387-2949.

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