PHOENIX – Willie McGinest saw what was happening to his beloved sport.
Youth football in his home town of Long Beach, California, was ailing.
Fathers-turned-coaches, sometimes fueled by egos and unfulfilled dreams, often mistreated players. Others with limited knowledge or old-school mentalities misdirected youth. A scarcity of resources and shortage of adequate equipment put the league’s athletes at risk.
So when the former linebacker’s friend and hip-hop icon Snoop Dogg founded the Snoop Youth Football League in 2005 as a remedy, McGinest wanted to help.
Michael Robinson, a former fullback, observed the same issues in his native Richmond, Virginia. Additionally, participation fees had risen excessively, driving away many children from single-parent homes. In response, he started his own youth league six years ago.
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Conditions began to improve in their respective communities, but McGinest and Robinson know erosion of the youth game remains wide-spread.
The fear of long-term dangers associated with concussions also has led many parents to redirect their children to other activities.
Participation numbers on high school and youth levels have declined five straight years, according to a 2018 study conducted by the Aspen Institute Sports and Society Program. The study reports 20,893 students stopped playing high school football in 2017. Meanwhile, participation for football leagues among ages 6-12 decreased to just below one million – a 17.4 percent drop over a five-year span.
The decline has caused some to wonder about the long-term health of the NFL and predict that the game could one day become extinct.
McGinest and Robinson are intent on making football viable for future generations.
“I’ve been a part of youth programs for almost 17 years, and when you hear and see people trying to attack our game – it’s the best sport in the world,” McGinest told USA TODAY Sports last week. “So I’m passionate about it. I’m passionate about kids. I’m passionate about growing the game, and I’m passionate about preserving our game.”
The NFL shares that same focus.
In the last three years, the league has ramped up its efforts to improve safety, technique, instruction and the overall quality of play in the youth and high school ranks, helping the bid to preserve the future of the game.
McGinest and Robinson serve on the NFL Legends Youth Advisory Committee, which works closely with the league’s operations department in youth and high school football outreach. Other members of the committee include former players Mark Brunell, Chad Pennington, Trent Dilfer, Maurice Jones-Drew, Jordan Palmer, Deion Sanders and Bobby Taylor.
A critical moment came in 2016, when Jeff Miller, now the NFL’s executive vice president of health and safety initiatives, acknowledged a link between football-related head trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
As the league sorted through a $1 billion concussion settlement with former players, the NFL began implementing rule changes intended to remove the use of the head as a weapon on the playing field to make the game safer.
Last year, the league’s owners approved a rule that subjects any player initiating contact with the helmet to ejection.
Current players called it virtually impossible to overcome the instinct to lower one’s head when bracing for or initiating contact. League officials countered by saying it was time for players to learn a new approach.
But they also realized the need for uniformity on this front. NFL and NCAA officials met to ensure better alignment on player safety and helmet-to-helmet contact restrictions. NFL brass also devised plans for greater investments in the youth and high school games.
“There’s a trickle-down effect from what happens on Sunday afternoons to Saturday afternoons to Friday nights,” Roman Oben, a retired offensive lineman and the NFL’s vice president of youth and high school strategy, told USA TODAY Sports. “So we have a huge responsibility to not only understand that trickle-down effect, but to equip those who are doing the work in that high school or youth community.”
That responsibility includes the commitment of more than $20 million annually to youth and high school football programs, including roughly $9 million a year to USA Football – the non-profit organization that serves as the national governing body for amateur American football and, in partnership with the NFL, offers coaching clinics and youth developmental programs.
Last week during the NFL’s annual league meeting in Phoenix, Oben’s department welcomed in 60 area high school coaches. NFL coaches Kliff Kingsbury (Cardinals), Dan Quinn (Falcons), Ron Rivera (Panthers) and Doug Pederson (Eagles) conducted sessions on defensive and offensive concepts. McGinest, Robinson, Brunell and Pennington also spoke.
“It was about the ability to pay it forward and totally emphasize fundamentals,” Quinn, who’s session focused on proper tackling techniques, told USA TODAY Sports. “I feel a responsibility for that because our game is the most visible, and it’s our responsibility to get it down to college, get it down to high school, get it down to the young football. … If we can keep instilling good habits and talking the same language, then that would be a huge impact.”
Say what you will about the NFL’s decision-makers, but in this area, the league is on the mark.
The problems observed by players like McGinest and Robinson are real, and so too are the concerns of parents who hesitate to let their kids play football.
As much as I loved playing football as a kid and enjoy watching and covering the sport now, I still steered my three sons to baseball, soccer and flag football. I can’t lie: My heart skipped a beat when my eighth-grader informed me last August that he signed up for his school’s football team. You can bet that I watched the first two days of tackling drills to see what kinds of techniques were being taught.
The league and the Legends advisers don’t dismiss such reservations.
Said Robinson, “I understand because I’m a parent first and foremost, so I do understand. But No. 2, because I’m in this business, I understand the numbers. The No. 1 youth concussion sport is girls’ soccer. … The NCAA, it’s wrestling that’s No. 1. So to hear that some players are taking their kid away because of that, it does hurt. But that’s why we’re out here telling our story and educating people.
“I don’t believe our game has a concussion problem. I believe our game has a coaching problem,” added Robinson, who wants to see states mandate certifications for youth football coaches.
“We want to start teaching them the right way from the beginning so once they get to the league, they’ve learned the right way,” he said. “Shoot your hands, hands up, knees bent, keep the right posture, keep your head out of the play, use your shoulder pads, wrap up. … We want to implement the verbiage, the technique.”
Altering tackling technique represents the most obvious points of emphasis. But last week’s coaching clinic covered a variety of topics, including how improve the quality of instruction, how to scheme more effectively, how to better structure practices.
According to high school coaches like Brock Farrel of Highland High (Gilbert, Arizona), the NFL’s efforts are making a difference. He said he observes improved safety and quality on all youth levels.
And that’s exactly what the NFL wants and needs for the sake of every player on every level – and not just for the sake of future pro stars. It’s bigger than the game itself.
“The sport, football, is the carrot because we instill so many other things in these kids once we get them,” McGinest said. “Teaching them about being accountable, being a good teammate, sportsmanship, being disciplined. … These are life skills and life lessons you can apply to your life once you move on in your life and onto the next stages.”
Follow Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.