LANGHORNE, Pa. -- Pop Warner said Thursday it is eliminating kickoffs in its three youngest football divisions, another safety-focused rules change sure to be noticed and discussed at higher levels of the game.
The ban will begin this fall. Instead of kickoffs, the ball will be placed at the 35-yard line to start each half and following scores in the Tiny Mite (ages 5-7), Mitey Mite (7-9) and Junior Pee Wee (8-10) divisions.
The organization, which began in 1929 and has 225,000 athletes enrolled in football ages 5-15, said it will review the results of the rules change after next season as it considers implementing the same ban in older age divisions.
Pop Warner also announced a further reduction in contact time during practice, meaning the players will not be hitting, blocking or tackling one another as much. The 33 percent rule that was implemented in 2012 is being lowered, to 25 percent, for all divisions.
"We are constantly working to make the game safer and better for our young athletes, and we think this move is an important step in that direction," said Jon Butler, Pop Warner's executive director. "Eliminating kickoffs at this level adds another layer of safety without changing the nature of this great game."
The NFL has also wrestled with kickoffs in hopes of reducing high-speed collisions by players that can lead to injuries. In 2011, kickoffs were moved from the 30- to the 35-yard line, dramatically increasing the number of touchbacks, in which the ball was not returned by the receiving team. Earlier this year, the NFL approved a one-year trial in which the ball will be placed at the 25-yard line after touchbacks on kickoffs instead of at the 20, adding incentive for the receiving team.
The Pop Warner moves come about a month after the organization settled a lawsuit brought by a Wisconsin woman who alleged her 25-year-old son's suicide in 2012 resulted from brain injuries he suffered while playing youth football. Debra Pyka was seeking at least $5 million from the Langhorne, Pennsylvania-based Pop Warner Little Scholars, the Pop Warner Foundation and their insurance company.
The federal lawsuit alleged Pyka's son, Joseph Chernach, suffered from a degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, and also had post-concussion syndrome. The suit alleged the conditions were caused by playing in a Pop Warner league from 1997-2000, beginning when Chernach was 11.
Earlier this week, 18-year-old Donnovan Hill died at a California hospital of complications from surgery related to management of his injury, a family attorney said. Hill was largely paralyzed from an injury he suffered during a 2011 Pop Warner game when he was 13. He and his mother reached a seven-figure settlement with the organization after filing a lawsuit claiming the league had promoted a dangerous headfirst tackling technique.
In 2010, Pop Warner implemented a youth sport concussion policy that said any player removed from a practice or game due to a head injury may not return until evaluated and cleared by a licensed medical professional. Two years later, Pop Warner banned full-speed, head-on blocking and tackling drills in which players are lined up more than three yards apart.
The organization has a total enrollment of 325,000, including football cheer and dance, and its enrollment number of 225,000 in football has been flat since 2012.