Sport leaders are hoping to revitalize lagging youth football participation by nixing tackle football until eighth grade and replacing it with a kinder counterpart.
Starting next fall, seventh-graders who want to play football in the Eau Claire school district will play on a flag football team, a change that acknowledges growing concern over youth concussions. The Eau Claire YMCA will no longer offer tackle football to fifth- and sixth-grade kids.
“It’s not just concern from parents, it’s concern from coaches and players too,” said Bonnie Nicolai, sports director at the Eau Claire YMCA. “You can try to make (tackle football) safer, but there’s no guarantee you can prevent concussions.”
Over the last decade, participation in the YMCA’s youth tackle football program declined more than 50 percent, Nicolai said. In 2007, the program catered to 358 players. In 2017, only 167 students were enrolled, including kids from outside the Eau Claire school district.
That trend is consistent within Eau Claire’s middle and high schools.
Kit Schiefelbein, assistant principal at Northstar Middle School, oversees athletics at all three of Eau Claire’s middle schools. She said in years past it was common to have between two and three seventh-grade football teams. This year there was one at each school.
“What we’re trying to do is get kids excited about playing football,” Schiefelbein said, noting the Menomonie school district has a similar program and has many more youth players. “Our goal is to increase participation by making it safer. Hopefully that will appeal to more students, and when they go to high school, hopefully they’ll be interested in continuing football.”
The district’s eighth-grade tackle football teams will remain, she said.
Head football coaches at North and Memorial high schools are both supportive of the seventh-grade change to flag football.
They’re hopeful the less aggressive approach for younger players will instill a new passion for the sport among kids, as well as keep their developing brains from injury.
“Kids who take a big hit early on may never want to play tackle football again,” said Mike Sinz, Memorial’s head football coach.
Memorial’s team currently has 90 players, he said, but he’s hoping that five years from now the team will grow to 140 or 150 students.
North, on the other hand, has 40 players in grades 10 through 12. Dave Decker, North’s head football coach, said he hopes the seventh-grade flag football program will generate enough interest in the sport for North to have 100 players.
“We just want kids to have fun and enjoy the game,” he said.
Additionally, kids who play flag football as opposed to tackle football don’t have to worry about weight restrictions for certain positions. As a safety measure, only kids at a certain weight and above can play positions that carry the ball.
Removing that restriction will allow kids to learn multiple positions, the coaches said.
“You never know how kids will develop in the future,” Sinz said. “It’s time for a change, and this is a great opportunity for us to make that change.”
Entities involved in the seventh-grade flag football transition include the Eau Claire YMCA, North and Memorial high schools and the Eau Claire Parks and Recreation Department.
Middle and high school coaches will lead information sessions about the transition at 6 p.m. on Monday, April 9, at Northstar Middle School, 2711 Abbe Hill Drive; at 6 p.m. on Monday, April 16, at DeLong Middle School, 2000 Vine St.; and 6 p.m. on Monday, April 23, at South Middle School, 2115 Mitscher Ave.
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