Fort Mill Times

Football safety decision sparks national interest

Players practice last week in the Tega Cay flag football league. Tega Cay decided not to sponsor tackle football this year.
Players practice last week in the Tega Cay flag football league. Tega Cay decided not to sponsor tackle football this year.

Joey Blethen made a tough call – then he received one.

It was tough to tell, he said, whether his friends were trying to prank him.

Blethen, head of the parks and recreation department in Tega Cay, said initially he wasn’t sure what to make of the email and following phone call from someone who claimed to be a Sports Illustrated writer. He didn’t know what the magazine wanted. Didn’t know how the magazine heard about his recreation department.

But he was willing to talk.

“It was pretty cool,” Blethen said.

The call checked out. Blethen was told a special edition is coming out Sept. 12. An article would focus, best Blethen could tell, on recreation football in Tega Cay – and perhaps other cities – and why the department decided earlier this year to quit tackle football in favor of flag only.

“The impression that I got was it was a focus on our program and the decision we made,” Blethen said. “Until I see it, I don’t fully know for certain.”

Efforts to contact the magazine and the writer were unsuccessful.

Tega Cay City Manager Charlie Funderburk spoke with Blethen on the interviews. Funderburk found out the reporter planned to come out to Tega Cay to speak with families and take photographs of the city’s flag football program.

“From what I understand, she (the reporter) has talked with other towns around the country that have done the same thing – eliminate tackle football for elementary age kids,” Funderburk said.

While the publicity is exciting, the bigger issue for the city is the decision itself. Blethen has a few months now to look back on the call his department made. He was torn about dropping a game he played and still loves, struggling with issues of player safety from concussions to heat strokes.

“I have zero regrets about it,” Blethen said.

National issue

Much of his conviction comes from continued reports nationwide of tackle football players injured in games or practice. Blethen admits the instances are rare compared to how many players participate, and understands tackle football organizations are focusing on player safety more than they have in the past. He also admits players are injured in a variety of sports, including those offered by his department.

But one catastrophic football incident, he believes, would be too many in Tega Cay.

Blethen said more people understand the department’s stance than have complained about it.

“It’s not all rainbows and cupcakes,” he said. “There were a couple of families who were pretty disappointed, but there were a lot more families that were supportive.”

Resident Chad Azara was an assistant soccer and baseball coach in Tega Cay. Last year his daughter was a cheerleader for a team. His son will play football for the first time this fall.

“My initial reaction was a bit of surprise, but then thinking about the game and watching a bunch of games last year while my daughter was cheerleading I thought it made sense,” he said.

“There were a lot of injuries and kids that had to be carried off the field.”

Azara said he looks at potential injuries from both sides.

“I wouldn't want my son to be hurt and wouldn't want my son be the reason another child got hurt,” he said.

“He is a fairly big boy for his age and I remember one specific time playing football as a kid when I de-cleated someone lined up against me who shouldn't have been, and he landed on the back of his neck. I still remember his face and the way I felt. I don't want my son on either side of that equation at a young age.”

Beyond injuries, the other main reason Blethen is confident in his choice involves numbers. Last fall 195 children played flag football in Tega Cay. This fall they are up to 284.

“We basically covered what we missed in tackle football,” Blethen said.

Tackling in Fort Mill

The nearest youth tackle football program, in Fort Mill, has 182 players this fall. Half are 9 and 10 year olds, with players ranging from age 7 to 12.

“Compared to last year for us, we have one less team in 7-8 (two total), same with 9-10 (five teams), and 11-12 we have four teams, two more than last year,” said Brown Simpson, head of parks and recreation in Fort Mill.

Simpson argues injuries in youth tackle football are less severe than at older ages, and by teaching fundamentals at a young age some players may avoid injuries later. He points to better training in recent years to protect players from head injuries. The only change his department sees for youth football this fall involves scheduling.

“In the Pee Wee league we are going to play some teams from Lancaster County,” Simpson said.

The idea of learning skills while players are smaller and slower is one Azara considers, if youth plan on playing tackle football when they are older.

“I like the emphasis on skills, plays and technique rather than force,” he said. “It is hard to say now, but I assume they won't have the muscle memory or heads up tackling technique mastered when they get old enough to play tackle.”

Still, like Blethen, Azara said his opinion hasn’t changed since Tega Cay made its decision to field only flag football.

“My response hasn't changed and I actually did additional research on it since then and believe it will provide them more opportunity to learn technique and skill,” he said.

“There still will be injuries, but head and neck injuries should drop significantly.”