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Welcome to the NFL

Pop Warner games don’t usually make it into the New York Times and USA Today. But youth football games generally don’t end 52-0. The lopsided contest last month between Massachusetts pee-wee teams Southbridge and Tantasqua has become fodder for press conferences, hearings, suspensions, and national headlines.

The game has become the most talked about, least watched, competition in youth football history. People have very strong opinions about a game they never saw.

The Southbridge team hurt Tantasqua’s pride. They also hurt their heads. Five Tantasqua players suffered concussions in the blowout.

Tantasqua charges that their opponents ran up the score, led with their helmets, and disregarded weigh-in procedures. The pee-wee division limits play to 120-pounders. Tantasqua coach Erik Iller claims that Southbridge’s scale-watcher explained, “Nobody gets refused to play football in Southbridge.”

Rob Philion, vice president of Southbridge Pop Warner, countered at a press conference that after going ahead 28-0 in the first quarter “the coaching staff immediately made the necessary adjustments in order to maintain compliance by, among other things, pulling their starters, running only between the tackles, refraining from all passing and outside running plays, and frequently substituting players into the game.” They also punted once on first down and scored their final three touchdowns on defense. Tantasqua, he noted, played with fewer than the minimum allowable number of players.

Pop Warner responded by suspending the coaches of both squads for the season and banning the refereeing crew. The slaughter rule in Pop Warner is 28 points, 24 points less than Southbridge’s margin of victory.

I asked a referee who has officiated several hundred Pop Warner contests in Massachusetts if he had ever witnessed such an imbalanced outcome. “Absolutely not,” he responded. “Never. Never, ever, ever.” Another ref labeled the outcome “abnormal” but not unheard of.

The dangerous blowout certainly seemed alien to the pee-wee contest I watched last weekend between two other Massachusetts squads, Arlington and Winchester. The evenly matched teams finished regulation tied at six. The strong tackling on defense, and sweeps and dives on offense, recalled an earlier incarnation of football. Plays frequently resulted in negative yardage. They took four overtimes, which in Pop Warner consist of four plays for each team to score from the 10-yard line, to settle the matter — in Winchester’s favor.

I caught up with some coaches and players after the hard-fought struggle. Arlington’s coaches stressed proper tackling technique, better equipment, certification for the coaches, and the extensive concussion training they receive as ways the game has become safer. Winchester’s coach Brandon Bergstrom detailed his team’s use of mats for tackling drills and their emphasis on form freeze-tackling, which enables coaches to teach technique while preventing player injuries from collision. Headlines suggest a game more dangerous than ever. But watching practice and talking to the fathers who volunteer their time as coaches belies that notion.

Adam, Arlington’s quarterback who also plays basketball and baseball, told me that he took up football because “one year I thought it would be really fun to go out and hit people. I tried it and I liked it.” One of his teammates explained his motivation for playing: “Really, I just like to tackle people.”

Football’s attraction for boys also serves as the fuel for its detractors. A retired Southbridge teacher blogged, “It is time for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to act and make tackle football illegal for young children.” A school board member in Dover, New Hampshire, has proposed doing just that in high schools.

The pigskin abolitionists may or may not understand football. They certainly don’t understand boys.

Football provides boys a structured outdoor environment to run, jump, tackle, and roughhouse — activities in which boys would partake in otherwise in an unstructured environment. Whereas classrooms often fail to keep a lid on the vigor of eleven-year-old boys, fields succeed in channeling that energy in a positive direction. As several of the boys explained to me, they love football because it serves as an outlet for their energy and aggression. In a nation where obesity, not head injuries, remains the primary children’s health concern, talk of banning youth football lacks perspective.

It’s a shame when coaches pile-on the score in a kids’ game. The worse bullying occurs when adults pile-on kids’ sports.

Football isn’t for everyone. That doesn’t mean it should be for no one. 

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