What looks like the NFL's latest nightmare played out on a football field an hour from Boston nearly six weeks ago. In a Pop Warner game between longtime rivals Southbridge and Tantasqua, five kids between the ages of 10 and 12 were concussed, all on the losing team, three in the first quarter and the last one on the final play of the game.
"Disturbing," is how Jon Butler, Pop Warner's executive director, described it.
It gets worse. The score at the end of the first quarter was Southbridge 28, Tantasqua 0. It was 52-0 at the final whistle.
Winning coach Scott Lazo, whose brother, Doug, is the Southbridge association's president, told the league committee that investigated the game he didn't notice the injuries piling up. "It was a football game, not a Hallmark moment," he said to the New York Times. Losing coach Erik Iller, whose wife, Jen, is president of Tantasqua's association and whose team filed a complaint afterward, defended his decision to keep playing by telling the same committee he wanted his kids to score so they could "leave with something."
"From what we were able to put together, it was a combination of things, as bad events often are," Butler said over the phone Tuesday. "There were two coaches who ignored several Pop Warner rules and, evidently, officials lost control of the game early.
"All we can do right now is reassure parents is that this is not typical at all," he added. "It doesn't in any way exonerate the people involved. All of us are upset about that. We've imposed sanctions and if we hear about anything like this again, we won't hesitate to ramp up the severity of the penalties. Those people need to get the message that we won't tolerate it."
After a hearing last week before the Central Mass Pop Warner league, both the coaches and association presidents were suspended for the rest of the season and put on probation through 2013. The three officials who worked the game were permanently banned for, among other things, failing to apply the mercy rule and end the game earlier.
The comforting thing — or not — is that Pop Warner is one of the most responsible youth sports programs around — it's the umbrella organization for 290,000 of the nation's roughly 3 million football-playing youngsters — and as safety-conscious as any.
It trains coaches to recognize concussion symptoms, provides guidelines about when players should be pulled from games, and after a preliminary study this summer concluded more devastating hits were delivered in practices than games, officials implemented a rule limiting contact drills to two of the six hours of practice allowed each week. It's begun a baseline survey to determine how many youngsters suffer concussions each season because currently, the only way to track them is through Pop Warner's medical insurers and last year, a total of only seven were reported.
Even Dr. Robert Cantu, who is co-director of the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy and argues against youngsters starting contact sports like tackle football and hockey before age 14, called several Pop Warner initiatives "good first steps."
"In this case, the punishments handed out seemed appropriate and I'm encouraged that the officials were held accountable for this debacle, too," Cantu said. "You get crazy, one-sided games in a lot of sports, but in most of those, the mercy rule is applied to protect kids' psyches. In football, it's even more important, because what you're protecting is their bodies and brains."
There's no mercy rule in the NFL, and not much more mercy, even at the top. During Commissioner Roger Goodell's tenure, the league has begun to address the wide-ranging problem of concussions with better information, stricter protocols covering player safety and changes in the rules. But none of it has discouraged Goodell from moving games to Thursday night to bulk up the NFL Network's profitability, pushing to increase the regular season to 18 games and launching a PR campaign that could be charitably described as disingenuous. A new commercial featuring Tom Brady and Ray Lewis reassures parents the league is concerned about player safety — without ever mentioning concussions — and earlier this month, the commissioner turned up at a youth football gathering in Virginia to promote the league's "Heads Up Football" program, designed to teach kids and coaches tackling skills to minimize potential head and neck injuries.
But the science on concussions increasingly suggests all those measures combined — and applied at every level — will reduce the numbers only so much. Cantu acknowledged what happened at that game in Massachusetts last month was an anomaly — "I hope it was nothing more than an isolated event," he said. "But it points out the dangers of brain trauma in a stark way. I hope no other game results in five concussions. But from what we know, from what I see increasingly in my practice, there are plenty of other games where concussions are taking place as well."
Ultimately, Cantu believes the only answer to the problem, at the youth level, anyway, will come from parents. He co-authored a book that was released last month laying out the case to have kids play flag football instead of tackle.
"They haven't understood the dangers their kids are being subjected to. Once they do — and it won't happen in weeks, or months, maybe even years — they'll demand changes," he said. "So we'll see."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.