The organized chaos is still there, with big helmets bobbing above shoulder pads that hang like awnings over the small bodies, and all the scurrying and chasing and blocking and tackling. The cheers and encouragement still pour from the parents in the stands. The coaches still bark their instructions, with varying levels of patience.
“Football has not fallen off the cliff,” says James Gossett, recreation superintendent for the City of Huntsville Parks & Recreation Department.
As he notes with a laugh, “We are in Alabama, after all.”
The debate over safety in football has had a trickle-down effect. The participation numbers across the nation have tumbled in the past half-dozen years. That includes interscholastic – a drop of seven percent in the Alabama High School Athletic Association from 2015 to 2016 — and recreational league participation, the latter of which falls under the Parks & Recreation Department.
Several programs have been adopted to address concerns and take strides to maximize safety”
“We’re not struggling for participants, but in some pockets, we are down,” says Gossett.
In Huntsville, there are seven teams playing at the 8-and-under level, seven in the 10-and-under league and six teams in the 12-and-under level, according to Gossett. Once players reach 12, they would play interscholastically (a fancy word that means playing for their respective middle school or high school).
Each team has a minimum of 18 players and a maximum of 30, and most are close to full capacity.
Additionally, there are seven teams playing flag football, with eight to 10 players on each team.
The games are scheduled for Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, designed so they wouldn’t interfere with families traveling to college games.
The serious brain injuries being detected in former college and pro players have had a seismic reaction throughout the sport. Some politicians, physicians and even ex-pros have advocated banning tackle football until the middle or high school level.
The City of Huntsville Parks & Recreation Department has adopted several programs that address the problem and take strides to maximize safety.
It is part of the “Heads Up” initiative promoted by USA Football. “Heads Up” encourages safer blocking and tackling techniques, proper equipment fitting and more medical awareness. There has been a rule change to limit the amount of contact in practice. According to USA Football, practice injuries are down 63 percent in leagues that use the “Heads Up” program and they’re down 87 percent in those that use “Heads Up” as well as the Pop Warner Football recommendations on practice contact.
All youth league coaches are required to pass a course on concussion protocol (they must also pass a background check through the Huntsville Police Department.).
At each game, there is a representative of Huntsville Parks & Recreation who is trained in emergency response, as well as a Huntsville Police officer. The games are officiated by members of the North Alabama Football Officials’ Association, who trained to identify common signs and symptoms of a concussion. According to the Alabama High School Athletic Association, officials are instructed to treat concussion symptoms as with any other injury, to send the player to the sidelines or call for attendants; they do not diagnose injury.
On other fields…
Football is hardly the only activity for youngsters through Huntsville Parks & Recreation.
According to Gossett, there are twice as many participants in soccer as football. However, that’s skewed somewhat by the fact that leagues go all the way to 16-and-under and there are girls’ leagues as well as leagues primarily filled by boys but with some female participants.
A volleyball program for youth nine through 18 is also available and many of the Parks & Rec facilities are being used for fall baseball, though those games do not fall under the umbrella of the City’s Babe Ruth Baseball affiliation.