In a move that challenges the longtime culture of America's most popular game, Pop Warner will introduce new rules to limit contact drills to one-third of practice time, and ban full-speed, head-on blocking and tackling drills in which players line up more than 3 yards apart.
The rules will go into effect starting with the 2012 season, when Pop Warner will become the first nationwide league at any level of football to restrict the amount of contact players experience.
Pop Warner is expected to announce the rules Wednesday, after a meeting of its medical committee.
"There are times when people and organizations have to evolve, and this is that time," said Dr. Julian Bailes, a neurosurgeon and chair of the Pop Warner Medical Advisory Board. "For the future of the sport, we need to morph it now and take the unnecessary head contact out of the game. If parents were considering allowing their child to play football, this (move) should assure them."
The oldest and largest national youth football organization, Pop Warner adds the rules on the heels of several studies highlighting the health risks in youth football. A Virginia Tech study published this year showed that some hits among second graders pack as much force as those seen at the college level. Last year, researchers also discovered a deceased teenage player suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative disease of the brain generally associated with athletes who experience repetitive hits to the head.
Bailes said his committee was particularly swayed by research suggesting that brains can be damaged not only from the big hits seen more commonly at the high school and adult levels but from smaller, more repetitive, sub-concussive blows experienced by players at all levels. Also, he said, most head injuries happen in practice.
Pop Warner executives anticipate pushback from youth coaches who may not want to change their ways, Bailes said. But the 83-year-old organization has support from at least one well-known coach, who in turn contends that most coaches at the college and NFL levels share his opinion.
"I'm very supportive," Alabama coach Nick Saban told ESPN. "At our level, we try to limit exposure to contact as much as possible because we want our players healthy for the game. It's even more important for a youth coach to do that. We've got to get young people to play the game in a safe way. You've got to start somewhere, right?"
Coaches will be allowed no more than 40 minutes of contact during a practice, or one-third of total practice time each week. The term "contact" means any drill or scrimmage in which players go all-out with contact, such as one-on-one blocking or tackling drills.
The second rule change prohibits full-speed, head-on blocking or tackling drills in which players line up more than 3 yards apart. Having two linemen in stances immediately across from the line of scrimmage from each other is allowed, according to Pop Warner rules. Coaches may conduct full-speed drills in which the players approach each other at an angle, but not straight ahead into each other. And there should be no head-to-head contact.
Saban said the new rules are "important to future participation" in football, a game whose safety has come under question even by those closest to it. Last year, ESPN's "Outside the Lines" spoke with several NFL veterans and their families who were steering their sons away from the game, and since then other players such as former quarterbacks Troy Aikman and Kurt Warner have added their voices to the concerned. Saban said that quality players can be developed without exposing them to high doses of collisions when young.
"I'm at our camp right now," Saban said by phone. "We have 1,100 kids here, ages 8 to 13, and it is all non-contact. These kids are improving tremendously. It's not just contact that a player needs. It's a matter of knowing how to come out of a block, how to use your hands, all kinds of things you can learn without contact. In fact, if you learn to use your hands better, you don't need to use your head as much."
Last year, the Ivy League announced that its teams will be limited to only two full-contact practices a week during the season, compared with a maximum of five under NCAA rules. By contrast, Pop Warner is a national organization, with 400,000 children between the ages of 5 and 15 participating in 43 states, plus Germany, Russia, Japan and elsewhere. It is a major feeder system not just for high schools and colleges but the NFL, where an estimated 70 percent of all current players got their start in Pop Warner programs.
Bailes said the aggressive culture and traditions of football may make it difficult to get some youth coaches on board. But he insists, "We're not trying to fundamentally change the game. We're trying to ensure its survival by reducing the potential for injury in practice."
Saban suspects that over time, the new rules will become as accepted as the practice of not putting players through two-a-days in the sweltering summer sun -- once a standard in football.
"Anytime you change something, people will say no, they've done it this way for a long time," Saban said. "But there's always a better way."