With recent reports of children's decreasing participation in tackle football leagues, combined with the rise of organized flag football in some areas of New Jersey, one researcher at Rutgers University is measuring the merits of the two youth sports options.

Football Game
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A June 6 NorthJersey.com article that positioned flag football as a safer alternative to tackle caught the attention of New Jersey 101.5 morning show host Bill Spadea, who weighed in on the pros and cons on-air last Wednesday.

And that in turn inspired Gregg Heinzmann, director of the Youth Sports Research Council at Rutgers, to share his thoughts.

While flag football is a "very appropriate" alternative for kids, Heinzmann said, he also referred to it as "tag on steroids."

He said flag football is still a contact sport that carries inherent risk, as would a game of tag on a playground. And even taking into account a focus on head injuries that has spread all the way to the NFL, the still-developing bodies and brains of children are susceptible to a whole slate of injuries that are totally distinct from what a pro football fan might see on TV.

"Kids do not produce the kind of forces that you see big, strong, fast professionals produce, and therefore the patterns of injuries that they incur are different," Heinzmann told Townsquare Media, echoing statements he made earlier Monday to Rutgers Today. Specifically, children's cooling mechanisms are not as refined at such young ages, so they are especially vulnerable to heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

Of course, head injuries remain a primary concern. Heinzmann and others have endeavored to share their research and statistics with youth football coaches, in hopes that the coaches will intensify the teaching of basic football fundamentals and techniques -— even including how to fall down properly.

"This is a children's game, and we're dealing with a unique population here that has certain characteristics that predispose them to injury," Heinzmann said.

Each of those factors plays into the choice parents and their kids are left with: to stay with tackle football even with enrollment numbers dropping in leagues like Pop Warner, or to switch over to flag football, leagues of which are growing "considerably" throughout the United States, according to Heinzmann.

The NorthJersey.com article cited a USA Football study that said tackle football participation rose by 1.9 percent among kids ages 6 to 14 last year, and 2.5 percent for teens 15 to 18. In the latter age group, enrollment in flag football grew 10.5 percent. A flag football league in Palisades Park has attracted 600 participants over a period of just three years, according to the article.

There is a third option beside the two football offerings. Some youngsters who might have otherwise played full-contact sports like football, or even baseball, are now opting for what Heinzmann calls "action sports," such as skateboarding and BMX biking.

"Each and every family needs to make the personal decision about whether or not this is appropriate for their child, based on their maturity and their interests and frankly, their personality," he said, stressing that not all kids are wired for sports to begin with.

Certain tackle leagues have been taking direct precautions to try and retain enrollment. The Pop Warner league has eliminated kickoffs, due to the rates of high-speed, player-on-player collisions on those plays. And as far up as Ivy League collegiate football, there has been a move to eliminate contact in team practices.

Patrick Lavery anchors and produces newscasts across all dayparts for New Jersey 101.5. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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