Participation, competition, safety

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: January 26 2014 | 12:01 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 2:39 am in
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The Gazette Editorial Board

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A couple of months ago, we wrote about “Kids Games.”

Our editorial (Nov. 17, http://thegazette.com/2013/11/17/kids-games/) reviewed recent national research and raised questions about whether the expansion of organized youth sports has been a positive experience for children. The researchers found cause for concern: adults controlling more and more “play” time for children, adults pushing kids to excel in sports to an extreme level of competition and time commitment, and adults not making sure that every kid who wants to play gets to play.

We wondered if those concerns were representative of what’s going on locally. So we set out to talk with a wide variety of people involved with running various local youth sports organizations. That proved to be a formidable task because of the number and variety of profit and non-profit groups offering such programs and classes.

Given the extensive national fever for football at all levels amid increasing concern about injuries and long-term health risks — and because the Cedar Rapids-based Metro Youth Football Association is the largest youth sports organization in the region — this follow-up editorial reviews the MYFA, a long-standing community institution.

Founded in 1971, the MYFA annually attracts more than 2,000 kids in grades 1-6 and hundreds of adult volunteers “to participate in and learn about both flag and tackle football in a wholesome, safe, structured, and fun environment. MYFA considers competition healthy and instructive but de-emphasizes the importance of winning and instead promotes the importance of participation,” its website states.

Certainly an admirable mission statement. The bottom line, of course, is how well the MYFA carries out that mission.

After talking with MYFA leaders, some parents of children who have been involved and a St. Luke’s Hospital official who oversees a trainer contract with the youth group, we believe that mission is largely being met.

“We’re not perfect but we hope we’re doing things the right way,” Jim Angstman, MYFA president, told us during an interview with The Gazette Editorial Board.

There are long-standing policies and practices in place to support that mission. A summary:

The schedule

The tackle participants are to practice two hours a day, five days a week for four weeks before the early fall season of six games in seven weeks begins. Beyond the preseason, there are three practice sessions a week, although some parents told us some teams practice more often. The flag league plays six games in the spring and practices twice a week for an hour.

Participation, competition

The tackle league is for kids in grades 4-6. Team rosters are based on the schools that kids attend and are supposed to be balanced for ability levels. For the first three quarters, all players are to get equal playing time; in the fourth quarter, coaches have the option to play their “best” lineup. High school coaches can get as involved as much as they want to, as long as they respect MYFA rules, Angstman said.

Cost

The tackle league registration fee of $95 includes all equipment, including a mouthpiece, except shoes with molded cleats. Angstman told us no child is turned away for lack of ability to pay; a scholarship fund helped about 20 such youths last year, although it does not pay for the shoes. The flag league fee is $55. Angstman and Gary Braksiek, MYFA vice president of football operations, said those fees are reasonable compared with other local leagues around the country. A recent MSN Money story found that many parents in other states pay several hundred dollars in fees and hundreds more for equipment.

Safety, security

There are weight limits, such as no player in the heaviest top 20 percent can be a ball carrier in tackle play, and you have to weigh 60 pounds to be allowed to play.

There’s a consistent effort to upgrade equipment, especially helmets — 900 of which have been replaced in the last three years. As for tackling drills, this is not the NFL. The safest techniques are to be taught.

The MYFA contracts through St. Luke’s Hospital to have nationally certified trainers at each game. Chris Pickering, a St. Luke’s manager, oversees that trainer program. If a player is injured during the game, the trainer does an assessment and makes the decision on whether the player can go back in and/or needs emergency treatment from a physician, he told us. Coaches and parents aren’t supposed to make that call. If the trainer pulls the player from the remainder of the game, then that player must get a release from the family’s physician before playing again.

The trainers also conduct preseason clinics for coaches and parents to go over the protocol and safety rules and are available for consultation all season.

Pickering said trainers keep records on all kids with injuries that they see. The number of players held out of competition because of an injury averages about two per week. “Given the number of games, that’s not exorbitant,” he said. “Most of the time, they’ve had the wind knocked out of them or twisted an ankle.”

In addition, background checks are done on all adult volunteers and board members — “very stringent,” Braksiek said.

Abusive parents, coaches

The MYFA has a code of conduct that is reviewed in preseason parent and coach meetings. “We don’t tolerate behavior that some leagues might,” Angstman said. “We have very few major disruptions during games; I have to talk with maybe two or three parents during a season.” As for coaches, “sometimes we get someone who wants to be Vince Lombardi, but we calm them down.”

Some parents told of some extreme incidents during games involving adults but they seem to be rare.

SOME concerns

We think the MYFA is a positive organization that provides an overall good experience for kids.

We do have a few concerns. The trainer contract does not cover practices, and if an injury occurs during practice, it’s the responsibility of the coaches to handle it, Pickering said. “It all falls back on First Aid training and emergency planning” that the trainers provide to coaches and other adults involved with the team.

Pickering believes it’s adequate at this level.

The MYFA did hold a concussion screening program last year but participation was low. We think such a screening is important, given the physical nature of the game, new research on the long-term effects of concussions, and that kids may come into the football season with a concussion from other activities or accidents. Perhaps the screening should be mandatory, supported by a partnership with a medical provider, business sponsor or even the University of Iowa Sports Medicine Department — which, by the way, recently launched a study to compile and compare injury data from youth tackle and flag leagues. Data that just isn’t readily available. Data that could help organizations like the MYFA to operate even more safely.

A few parents also told us that some at-risk kids from core neighborhoods may not be getting an opportunity with MYFA and need more support or assistance from adult mentors. That can be a bigger challenge but it’s important.

DIFFERENCES

Keep in mind, too, that the MYFA does not sponsor “traveling” teams of top players who compete regionally or even nationally. Practice time, expectations and expenses are much more extensive for those teams. And the national research we cited in the November editorial focused more on such “all-star” teams, including complaints that many kids get “burned out” at an early age and other aspects of their personal development may suffer.

The MYFA appears to have struck a reasonable balance between participation and competition while trying to teach skills, work ethic, discipline and teamwork.

Are the vast majority of kids getting those benefits and having fun, too? There’s not universal agreement.

But on balance, the MYFA appears to practice what it preaches.

Pickering is among those vouching for the program’s benefits. He doesn’t have a child in playing but said some of his relatives do. “I’d be very comfortable if a child of mine wanted to play in this league. And I’d refer it as well. ... There’s a strong focus on education and safety,” he told us.

We see the MFYA as a community asset. We hope its leaders and members keep striving to meet or beat their mission statement. Put the best interests of kids, all kids who want to play, at the forefront.

Comments: editorial@thegazette.come or (319) 398-8262

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