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Pop Warner Participation Drops: Are Head Injuries to Blame?

Pop Warner, the nation's largest youth football program, experienced a 9.5-percent drop in participation between 2010-12, according to a report released Wednesday by Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada of ESPN.com's Outside the Lines.

Dr. Julian Bailes, the chief medical officer of Pop Warner, told the two reporters that concerns about head injuries were "the No. 1 cause" for the plummeting number of players participating.

"Unless we deal with these truths, we're not going to get past the dropping popularity of the sport and people dropping out of the sport," Bailes told ESPN.com.

According to data provided to ESPN by Pop Warner, participation fell 5.7 percent for the 2011 season and an additional 4 percent the following year. Overall, the organization has posted a net loss of 23,612 players over the past two seasons, the Fainaru brothers report.

Similar declines have been occurring at the high school level over the past few school years, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations. During the 2010-11 school year, 1,109,836 total high school student-athletes (both male and female) participated in 11-player football; by 2012-13, that number had fallen to 1,088,158. The net loss in high school football players, 21,678, is similar to the total loss experienced by Pop Warner, although the percentage of lost players is significantly smaller due to the larger base of high school football players. 

Below, you can see a visual representation of the participation figures from both Pop Warner and the NFHS over the three most recent years in which data is available.

This data comes on the heels of a recent survey which found roughly one in three Americans to be less likely to allow their children to play football due to what they know about football-related head injuries. According to the survey, 13 percent of U.S. adults wouldn't let their sons participate in football, and 16 percent said the risk of long-term brain injury would be the deciding factor in whether to allow their son to play.

Last summer, Pop Warner became the first youth-sports organization to make an official attempt at limiting contact in practices. The organization banned coaches from utilizing full-speed, head-on blocking and tackling drills with players lined up more than three yards apart, and also prohibited coaches from using more than one-third of practice time for contact drills.

Others soon followed suit, with the Pac-12 conference earlier this year announcing a plan to limit the amount of contact allowed in football practices starting this fall. This summer, the Maryland education department also recommended limiting the number of contact practices allowed for youth-athletes who participate in collision sports.

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