Most would agree that this scenario in Pop Warner football is disturbing: rival teams of 10-12-year-olds in an obvious mismatch; a game barreling on despite multiple players on the losing team sustaining concussions; a coach who wouldn’t forfeit despite not having the required number of players to continue; a winning coach who blamed the losing team for not being properly trained; and a final score of 52-0.
In one play between the Southbridge Pop Warner pee wees and their rivals, the Tantasqua Braves, two Tantasqua players were hit so hard that they were pulled from the field. Of the five Tantasqua boys that sustained concussions, The New York Times reported, one was hit so hard his eyes rolled back into his head.
Yet, the game went on, despite what are known as “mercy rules” designed to limit a dominant team’s ability to run up scores, and the fact that after only six plays, Tantasqua was down to only 13 players filling 22 positions on the field.
Now both coaches have been suspended for the rest of the season, as officials from the Southbridge Pop Warner Youth Football and Cheerleading group (the broader organization has 425,000 youth sports and cheerleading participants in 42 states) and Tantasqua Pop Warner boards lob accusations at each other.
In a statement, Rob Philion, vice president of the Southbridge board, said Tantasqua coaches bore the responsibility, and criticized Tantasqua’s coach, Erik Iller, for not forfeiting. Southbridge’s coach, Scott Lazo, said in a NY Times interview, “All the issues were on their side of the field. This is a football game, not a Hallmark moment.”
The Boston Globe noted that Tantasqua issued a statement criticizing the other team for refusing to accept any responsibility. “They show a clear failure to grasp the real issues at hand [the harming of 10-to-12-year-old children].”
Head injuries are the sport’s greatest safety concern and greatest legal liability. Some universities have ordered limits on contact in practice to reduce the risk of brain injuries; Pop Warner has its own strict rules limiting contact and eliminating full-speed head-on blocking and tackling drills.
As for the parents involved in this incident, some blamed the Southbridge team for deliberately trying to hurt their kids, while one parent responded to an email saying that every player wanted to be on the football field and not give up.
Is it responsible to encourage your kids and their coach to stick with the game, even in such drastic instances as what occurred between these two teams? Or should parents from both sides have intervened to save kids from head injuries? Weigh in here, and learn more about responsible sporting at Liberty Mutual’s Responsible Sports site.