Will Smith 'Concussion' movie: Why Pop Warner isn't worried

A new movie, starring Will Smith, looks at the NFL's concussion problem. Will youth football signups drop?

One might expect that Pop Warner, the nation's largest youth football program, would flinch at the release of a trailer for the upcoming Will Smith film "Concussion." 

The movie chronicles the work of Nigerian forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu, who found National Football League players suffering brain injuries resulting from concussions.

 But thanks to football education programs already in place, Pop Warner officials say the film may not have the kind of negative impact on youth participation as earlier revelations about head trauma risks associated with the sport.

Pop Warner suffered a 9.5 percent participation drop between 2010-12, which was attributed to rising public concerns over concussions in the NFL, according to a 2013 ESPN report.

In 2009, Congress held hearings on the NFL's long-standing efforts to conceal the connection between concussions and mental illness. In 2010, a league spokesman acknowledged for the first time a connection between concussions and "long-term problems." In early 2011, former Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest to preserve his brain for study.

“This is not a new story and we’re very confident that our numbers will not be affected by the film coming out,” says Pop Warner director of media relations Josh Pruce in a telephone interview. “I won’t have 2015 numbers for a while but I can tell you that since 2012 our numbers have basically stabled-off at 225,000 participants.”

Mr. Pruce adds that “Since concussions became a major concern, we have done quite a few things to help educate coaches, players, and parents and to improve our programs.”

"All of our head coaches and assistant coaches have to take the training for 'Heads Up Football' from USA Football,” says Pruce. “We have also implemented a series of rules over the years: One of those is ‘When in Doubt Sit Out’ ... And we changed our contact rules limiting the amount of contact to only one-third of the practice time.”

USA Football is the governing body for amateur football, and is supported financially by the NFL and the National Football League's Players’ Association (NFLPA )

Football isn’t the only sport with the potential to cause repeated concussions. Both Pop Warner football and youth hockey leagues have seen a marked decline in enrollment in the years since Bennet Omalu, the subject of the Will Smith film, first announced his findings on traumatic brain injuries resulting from concussions. Dr. Omalu conducted the autopsy of Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster in 2002, which led to his discovery of a disease – believed to be caused by repeated head trauma – that he named chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

The NFLPA estimates that 70 percent of all current NFL Players got their start in Pop Warner programs, which start at age 5 and go through age 15. 

While the decline in youths participating in Pop Warner may have leveled off, a few cases of pro players leaving the game prematurely – and a lawsuit filed against Pop Warner this year – may have served to keep the number youths entering Pop Warner from rising.

A "minor concussion" led to the early retirement in March of Chris Borland who, at age 24, told his NFL team he was retiring because he feared the long-term effects of head trauma. Mr. Borland, of Wisconsin, had signed a nearly $3 million contract for four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers and banked a $600,000 bonus.

Also coming out of Wisconsin is a $5 million wrongful death lawsuit, which was filed in February against Pop Warner by the mother of Joseph Chernach, 25, a Hixton, Wisc., man, who committed suicide in 2012. The suit claims the young player suffered from CTE brought on by playing Pop Warner football from the age of 11.

Duck Creek, Wisc. Pop Warner President Mike Plummer says that his youth program was part of a USA Football pilot safety program, which started three years ago to improve training and game play techniques. The "Heads Up" training is now a national program, and he says Pop Warner enrollment in Duck Creek, “is actually up this year by about 15 to 20 kids this year.”

“We lost, oh boy, quite a few number of kids and we’re actually on the way back up now,” Mr. Plummer says in a phone interview. “Parents are getting educated. I believe that it initially started as a panic with all the negative press and everything else. I think some parents might have hit the panic button.”

Plummer adds, “But also there was cause for concern with the things that were being taught as compared with what we’re teaching now with the USA Football program. Now we’re teaching a whole new way of blocking and tackling.”

Asked if he plans to see the new Will Smith film Pruce says, “Well, I think there are other films I’m more excited about seeing, like Star Wars, but I will get to it because I believe we all need to continue to get educated in every way we possibly can.”

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