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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  • Jeep9292

    Tantasqua Pop Warner (TPW) is committed to providing fun athletic learning opportunities in football and cheerleading while emphasizing the importance of academic success and sportsmanship.  The safety of our players is the forefront of all decisions made by our program.  TPW is an all-volunteer organization and comprised exclusively of parents with children in the program.  We would like to express our full and continued support for our President and Pee Wee Head coach in light of Central Mass Pop Warner’s (CMPW) ruling.  Both have willingly contributed significant time and effort over several years to TPW.  Their dedication, along with that of the entire board, helps to ensure that our program provides the best possible opportunities for the TANTASQUA children of our community.
    On September 15th , 2012,  the Tantasqua Pee Wee football team played the Southbridge Pee Wee football team in Southbridge.  Within the first 6 plays, 4 of our players were sidelined due to injuries.  They were given on field evaluations by a certified paramedic.  At no time did these 4 players re-enter the game.  Three were later diagnosed with concussions by medical professionals.   The other sustained a shoulder injury.    Before the first quarter ended, the score was 28-0.  At that time Southbridge had an obligation to abide by  the Pop Warner National mercy rules.  These rules were not  followed and were not enforced by the 3 paid referees.  Two players in the second half of the game were sidelined due to injuries.  They were given on field evaluations by a certified paramedic.  At no time did these 2 players re-enter the game.  These 2 players were later diagnosed with concussions by medical professionals.   Immediately after the conclusion of this game, ending in 52-0, the TPW Association asked CMPW for an investigation into this game due to the violation of the lopsided rule, a complaint of an improper weigh-in procedure and the actions of the referees.  The TPW  President was assured the three referees from this game were relieved of any duties involving Pop Warner football games by the CMPW President on September 18th.   A hearing into this investigation was conducted on Thursday, October 18th, 2012.  The official hearing results in writing were issued Saturday October 19th, 2012.  The head coaches of both Tantasqua and Southbridge were suspended for the rest of the 2012 season and will be on probation for the 2013 season.  The President of Tantasqua Pop Warner and the President of Southbridge Pop Warner were put on probation for the remainder of the 2012 season and the 2013 season.
    The coaching staff of the Tantasqua Pee Wee team has taken all required courses for coaching at the Pop Warner level, including concussion training.  The Pee Wee head coach was in his 5th year of coaching for TPW and is a USA football certified coach.  In his 5 years of coaching these are the first head injuries of any of his players.  We stand behind the Tantasqua Pee Wee teams coaching staff and their capabilities and football knowledge. 
    Our organization recognizes CMPW’s governing role and will abide by its ruling.  We do, however, respectfully disagree with the outcome that was handed down.  We regret that the opportunity to address the significant differences between Southbridge’s view on the core values of Pop Warner football and our own was lost. 
    It is our position that the ad hominem attacks and disparaging remarks made by members of the Southbridge organization are both unwarranted and completely without merit.  They show a clear failure to grasp the real issues at hand (the harming of 10-12 year-old children).  More importantly, their unwillingness to entertain any responsibility does a great disservice to their players, families and the Southbridge community at large.
    Tantasqua Pop Warner Board

    • Robinsegg

      I understand that the President of the TPW did question the officials about stopping the game and they refused to do so. I also heard from my child who was at a Tantasqua dance that southbridge players showed up at this dance and threatened Tantasqua players and told them they planned on “taking them out” that following Sunday….The Southbirdge coaching staff should be ashammed of themselves, this is not a new game to these “men” nor is this new behavior as this isnt the first time they have been suspended, I must wonder what it will take for these brothers to be permanently removed from working with kids.

    • Sarar584

      Are you taking responsibility for YOUR coaches refusal to end the game? His blatant disregard for the player’s safety?? His breaking the rules by continuing a game with less players than the allowed amount? Also if those boys truly had concussions then why we’re they back in the game two weeks later??

  • Football Mom 15

    I pulled my son out of Pop Warner for exactly these reasons. Some of the coaches at that time were just plain irresponsible, and kids were getting hurt and left to continue playing. When one of the players was hauled off the field on a stretcher, that was enough for me. We were out. Masking, dirty and illegal hits, kids grinding their cleats into other kids hands (on the ground from a tackle or other reasons) were rarely called, and concussions happened repeatedly. Some injuries are inevitable given the sport, but some players should have been ejected and the coaches suspended; it never happened.
    My son loves football, and is now finishing his senior year as the Captain of his HS Varsity team, having returned to a sport he loves. Glad he had a great coach in Pop Warner while he was there, but no regrets for pulling him out when I did.
    The fact is that some of the teams are irresponsible and some coaches teach their kids to play dirty, and that needs to be addressed so that good coaches can continue to do the terrific job they do. Pop Warner needs to pay much more careful attention to the coaching styles and show up (unannounced) to observe every team at least once in a season. The kids need that, and the families certainly pay enough to have that added security.

  • Magik13

    The Southbridge coaching staff runs these kids into the ground and push them beyond reasonable limits. The dysfunctional Southbridge coaches ought to be put in jail for teaching these kids to play the game with excessive violence. This is unacceptable and these coaches need to be held to account. 

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