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HBO's 'Real Sports' Examines Risks, Safety Efforts in Youth Football

In Tuesday night's episode of HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, the safety of youth football came under the microscope.

Correspondent Bernard Goldberg, who hosted a feature on the "trophy culture" of youth sports in July 2015, focused on a number of topics that longtime readers of this blog will be plenty familiar with: the alarming number of high school football players who have died from football-related ailments (whether head trauma or heat illnesses) in recent years; the long-term ramifications of playing football in terms of brain health; and the safety initiatives such as USA Football's "Heads Up Football," designed to make the game safer.

Three parts of the segment notably stood out, however.

First, Goldberg traveled to visit one of the best youth football teams in Texas, the San Antonio Predators, whose coach openly boasted about prioritizing hitting during practice.

"We believe in hitting a lot," head coach John Collins told Goldberg. "We do believe in aggressive football because if you look back and you watch old football games on TV, those aggressive-hitting football guys, they're dominant."

As Goldberg noted, the Dartmouth College football team has taken the direct opposite approach, prohibiting contact-tackling practices during spring practice, preseason, and the regular season. Head coach Buddy Teevens told Goldberg that prior to implementing the ban on contact practices, his players suffered upward of 20 concussions per year.

Last season? Only two of his players suffered a concussion.

The Dartmouth players do tackle during practice; they just use sleds and dummies instead of tackling each other. (Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer delved deep into Dartmouth's innovative program this summer, for those who are interested.) Teevens' ban on full-contact hitting in practices, which he implemented in 2010, is now inspiring imitators: All eight Ivy League head football coaches unanimously voted earlier this year to eliminate such practices.

Goldberg highlighted Heads Up Football as an initiative aimed at reducing the risk of youth football, but he questioned how much change it's causing. On the day he visited the San Antonio Predators, many of the players were reportedly leading with their heads rather than their shoulders when tackling, and they participated in 90 minutes of full-contact practice, three times the recommended limit.

When Goldberg asked Collins what the USA Football restrictions were on hitting, the coach replied, "I don't even remember. I'm not gonna lie, I have to go look it up." Collins noted that USA Football has made "recommendations," not hard-and-fast rules. USA Football executive director Scott Hallenbeck told Goldberg that the organization cannot mandate youth football teams follow their recommendations, noting it lacks a sanctioning system to punish coaches who don't comply.

Goldberg also spoke with Joseph Curtatone, the mayor of Somerville, Mass., who declared his desire to prohibit organized tackle football from all city fields and all city fields for players below high school age. Dr. Ann McKee and Chris Nowinski, co-founders of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of Medicine, likewise expressed their belief to Goldberg that given the risks, children shouldn't play tackle football before reaching high school.  

The full Real Sports episode will be available to stream later Wednesday on HBO GO.

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