Lights Out on Friday Night Tykes

Insurance providers will price out youth level football leagues if the game doesn’t change, putting the future of football at risk.

Growth in medical knowledge and shifting societal values are often reflected in the evolution of sports at all levels. The most common evolutions across major sports are changes to the rules of the game, made in concert with experts or special committees. Football is no exception to this trend–at every level, the game has made significant alterations to the rules to improve safety and competitive balance. Changing rules make headlines in the offseason and spark controversy among fans (just ask anyone but a Patriots fan about the tuck rule). 

Until recently, changes to football have always been made knowing there will be a tomorrow. Football leagues and organizations have been able to act with discretion, effectively insulating themselves from true reputational harm. In essence, all football leagues from Pop Warner to the NFL acted as if they owned a day of the week. No matter who you were or what your job was, on game day, the world stopped spinning for an afternoon.

However, tomorrow is no longer guaranteed after the curtain was pulled back on the potential neurological damage caused by collision sports like football. Specifically, it is non-revenue generating youth football leagues who are in danger of being forced to close because they can no longer afford the requisite level of insurance for the upcoming season. A true evolution of football, at the youth level, is necessary to ensure a tomorrow for youth football players across the country.

By virtue of being private organizations, youth football leagues are not regulated as heavily as public entities like public school districts with football programs, who must answer to high school athletics associations. For example, New York’s strict guidelines for concussion and neurological injuries and residual insurance coverage only applies to state actors (schools and school related programs). This forces youth programs unaffiliated with schools to find a suitable insurance policy at a price that allows the league to pay its other operating costs. There is no thumb on the scale, in the form of the state, forcing insurance providers to even offer policies for youth football. Thereby removing any benefits from competition among vendors that would keep prices in check. Rather, insurance providers can set costs in relation to the risk pool and likelihood of occurrences under their policy.

Reflecting the current risk associated with contact youth football, prices for general liability policies covering youth football organizations have risen exponentially compared to other sports. Base level policies for 15-year-old and under teams, offering comprehensive injury coverage, are more than $400 per team in the league.  As a comparison, it costs $84 dollars per team for flag football teams. Further illustrating the growing disparity in insurance coverage rates: basketball, softball, and baseball can be insured for all age groups at $115 or less per team. Operating a youth football team can cost thousands in insurance alone, simply making it too expensive to undertake going forward. 

Youth football has its back against the wall. In order to keep youth football feasible, the game must change and evolve. Practices consisting of activities such as Oklahoma drills where players collide head on have no place in youth football. Rules allowing for contact on defenseless players must change as well. Eliminating needless contact will help reduce risk of injury and therefore reduce insurance rates. But this won’t fix the problem, at its core football is premised on strategic violence.

In order to truly reduce insurance costs and change the game, more resources are necessary to ensure players are properly instructed and monitored. Allowing states to oversee and subsidize youth football insurance costs and bring these leagues such as Pop Warner under their stricter regulatory schemes, keeping the athletes safe and significantly reducing out of pocket costs for all parties involved. For many the idea of “big football government” may not be optimal, but if left to legislators, contact youth football may be entirely prohibited in the near future. The resources and legitimacy of state oversight can be youth football’s Hail Mary.

Tony DiPerna

Photo Credit Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

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