LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — As more information is learned about brain injuries related to football, Selectman Robert Ericson is questioning whether the town should change the sport for the town's youth.
"The CTE, degenerative brain disease, is happening more and more. It is a direct result of a game where kids, especially young children, get banged around a lot. Is there a way we can make football a little safer for our children?" Ericson questioned. "Is it time that we, as adults, start to look at the safety and long-term aspect?"
Ericson isn't alone in asking the question. Throughout the nation, football programs have been dramatically changed to increase safety, or sometimes eliminated programs altogether. Many towns and schools have changed from tackle football to flag football for the youngest ages.
"Football is the only sport where you are constantly hitting each other on a regular basis," he said and added that while there is incidental contact in many other sports, football is the only one in which contact is part of the game.
Ericson floated the idea of making changes to the town's football league to improve safety.
But the heads of the local football program said the game has already been drastically changed over the last decade or so to improve safety.
"Is it the town's place to put their nose in and make the decision on whether they should play or not, shouldn't that be the families' discussion?" said Brad Lepicier, representing the Lanesborough Tigers youth football team.
Lepicier said the youth program is dramatically different from the way it was a few decades ago. He said 90 percent of the practice is conditioning and tackling drills are limited and that coaching is safety focused and proper tackling techniques are taught to reduce collisions.
"We don't teach them to run at each other with their heads. We teach them the proper way to tackle," he said. "The amount of contract children actually have is limited."
He added that league rules are in place for the size of the players at different positions and during practice, the coaches make sure that the children going against each other are comparable in size and skill.
Director of Lanesborough Youth Football John Wellspeak added that the program has vastly improved the equipment. The youth use air-filled and cushioned helmets that need to be recertified every two years.
Wellspeak said 47 percent of concussions diagnosed at the hospital are related to sports while 53 percent are not. He said the biggest cause of brain injuries are falls, followed by auto accidents. In sports, he said the most concussions come from bicycling.
Those statistics have been cited by USA Football and other advocates, but it is debatable. Many have suggested that the overall numbers may be higher for bicycles because of sheer numbers of participants and time while contending football is more likely to cause concussions and more severe concussions.
Nonetheless, national statistics do show concussions with a sharp increase among youth and teens. Lepcier said much of that is because coaches are now much more keenly aware of the symptoms and take proper precautions. Gone are the days when a coach simply asks how many fingers he is holding up and then sending the player back into the game.
"We're very much involved with the player's safety aspect," Wellspeak said, outlining a series of classes and seminars the coaches take every year.
Lanesborough's program is a recognized partner of USA Football's Heads Up Football program. That program provides coaches with training, education, and information on putting the player's safety first.
What Wellspeak doesn't want to see is the town's youth sticking their heads in video games or having children fall into bad behaviors. He said if the children don't learn the game at the younger level, then there is a greater chance they fall into bad behaviors in high school because they don't have the chance to play. He wants the town's youth involved.
"Football is a contact sport. But if we wait and these kids don't play until high school, their time is passed. They don't know how to get into a stance. They don't know how to tackle," he said.
Following the discussion, the Selectmen seemed satisfied with the program's explanations. But the conversation is one that has been going on in cities and towns throughout the nation for more than a decade.