Days before Super Bowl LI kicked off — and amid declining player participation and increasing safety concerns — USA Football (note: not the NFL) announced radical new changes to the game as part of a pilot program in a small number of leagues this year.
Among the new rules:
Each team will have six to nine players on the field, instead of 11.
The field’s size will be reduced.
Kickoffs and punts will be eliminated.
Players will begin each play in a crouched position, instead of in a three-point stance.
Position rotations will be mandated.
Coaches will be required to ensure players of equal size line up against each other.
Two coaches will be allowed on the field to organize plays and guide players.
“There are, legitimately, concerns among parents about allowing their kids to play tackle football at a young age,” Mark Murphy, president of the Green Bay Packers and a board member of USA Football, the sport’s governing body, told The New York Times. “So they can look at this and say they’ll be more comfortable that it is a safer alternative.”
“This is the future of the game,” added Scott Hallenbeck, executive director of USA Football. “All of this is all about how do we do a better job, and a smarter job around the development of athletes and coaches in the game of football.”
Participation in the organization’s flag football program increased by 8.7 percent last year, according to Hallenbeck.
After several years of decreases in the number of young player dying from head and spine injuries, football fatalities are on the rise again, according to a recent study by the University of North Carolina, released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January. UNC has gathered data on deaths and injuries related to high school and college football since 1965, according to an Associated Press report. And concussions continue to dominate discussions about the game.
Funded in part by the National Football League, USA Football introduced its Heads Up Football program — with an emphasis on safer tackling techniques and injury recognition — to youth, middle and high school coaches several years ago. But its impact appears small.
Pop Warner — the largest youth football organization in the country — also put in place rules to limit full-contact practices and took other steps to limit the risk of repeat head impact.
But that’s not always enough to convince parents. Last fall, the Crusaders Pop Warner football association in Clark, N.J., canceled its season, citing low numbers and blaming a startup flag football league. A few weeks later, the season was reinstated.
Stefan Duma, a professor and head of the department of biomedical engineering at Virginia Tech — as well as a member of Pop Warner’s medical advisory board — told USA Today he supports changes to the game that are backed by solid evidence that leads to a reduction of injuries. As an example of that, he cites limiting full-contact practices in Pop Warner.
But he considers USA Football’s recent changes too drastic.
“I think they run the risk that people will just stop listening,” Duma said. “You change the sport too much and parents won’t want to be part of USA Football. They’ll break off and do their own thing, maybe create their own leagues. Then you lose the ability to control the sport. I have talked to a lot of parents of youth football players, and they want to see real numbers. They want evidence. They don’t respond well to changes [in the sport] based just on opinion.”