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5 Reported Concussions In Pop Warner Game; Coaches Suspended

BOSTON — Two Pop Warner football coaches from central Massachusetts have been suspended over a game in which five players from the Sturbridge-based Tantasqua regional team suffered concussions. There are accusations of dirty play and coaches failing to protect the kids, and the incident has caught the attention of Pop Warner’s national office.

WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with Jon Butler, executive director of Pop Warner, about what went wrong.

Sacha Pfeiffer: Pop Warner has said it’s gotten involved in this situation because it considers it “unprecedented.” How would you characterize what happened in this game, which we should note took place Sept. 15, although the coaches were just suspended at the end of last week?

Jon Butler: We just became aware of the situation early last week and it certainly raised a real red flag in our minds at the number of reported concussions. We have, nationally, a relatively low number of concussions reported on an annual basis, and five in one game is far beyond anything we’ve ever heard before. So we became concerned and started to ask some questions and found out that there were some pretty serious rules violations involved and some very questionable officiating adding into it.

This was a game between 10-to-12-year-olds, Southbridge against Tantasqua, and, according to published reports, Tantasqua had several players injured within just the first couple minutes of the game — to the point that the team fell below the 16-player limit. But the game continued. What can you tell us about what happened?

Clearly that’s just poor decision-making and not following the rules. The rule is very clear that any time you don’t have 16 or more eligible, capable players, the game stops. So it should have stopped right then and there.

But instead, five players suffered concussions. Certainly with all of the research on head injuries and the potential long-term dangers of concussions in children, any concussion is a concern. So what is your reaction to the coaches allowing the game to go on after the injuries, including head injuries, started to accumulate?

I think both coaches should have gotten together and just said, “Hey, that’s it. We’re done for the day.” We invoked our own concussion rule. We were the first national youth sports organization to do so back in September 2010. And then this year we instituted two new rules restricting the amount and types of contact allowed in practice. So everybody in Pop Warner should be acutely aware of our concern with concussions and the potential dangers involved.

Is this a case where some players were kept in the game even after they had been injured?

I don’t believe so. From what we’ve heard, they were removed from the game. Unfortunately, the fact that they were not going to be able to go back into the game, which was good from a medical point of view, was not communicated. So some people weren’t aware that the team at that point had less than 16 eligible players.

The Tantasqua coach has been quoted making the allegation that Southbridge coached its kids to intentionally injure their top opponents. The Southbridge coach blames bad training for the other team’s injuries. Has Pop Warner been able to sort through those accusations and determine if there was dirty play going on?

It’s very difficult, even from the little bits of videos we’ve seen. It always sounds easy to say that a player was being targeted. But the difference between a clean tackle and somebody targeting a player is almost invisible and impossible to detect.

The two coaches have been suspended for the rest of the season and put on probation for next year’s season. In your view, is that enough of a sanction, and are you concerned about the message the incident will send to parents and players?

Certainly they will have “Big Brother” looking over their shoulder next year. I certainly hope it sends a strong message to the parents and players. We certainly don’t tolerate violations of the rules. They are very clear. There is a level of expectation that safety is the number-one concern for all of us. We feel that both coaches should have been more aware of the situation, should have certainly been aware of the rules, and stopped the game long before it finished up.

Do you have any concern that despite the all the publicity and worry about head injuries, the message is not getting across to coaches?

I think certainly there’s a very few coaches who are either not getting the word or are choosing to ignore it. And certainly we will not hesitate to sanction those individuals when a situation arises. I think another issue is [that] there is still, among too many people at all levels of football, the macho mentality. You hear NFL players say, “Well, you know, if I get my bell rung, I’m not going to tell them on the sideline because they’ll make me sit out the rest of the game.” And I think, to some degree, that carries over to all levels of the game, which all of us need to work on getting reversed.

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