Any contact sport can present a risk for concussion, but there has been a lot of attention recently on long-term injuries caused by playing tackle football. Parents who want their kids to learn athletic skills, camaraderie and teamwork without butting heads do have options.
"My son, he just loves to play football," Jerry Prew said. "It doesn't matter to him if it's tackle or flag football. He just wants to play."
Prew coaches a team of 8-to-10-year-olds on Saturday mornings at a church field in Lenexa, KS. His team is part of a flag football league for ages 4 to 14 run by i9 Sports.
"We try to provide kids an environment on the field where it's safe, convenient and fun for them," explained local i9 franchise owner Terry Reuter. "Half of kids who play competitive youth sports quit before the age of 12 because they are not having fun. There's too much yelling and pressure."
The i9 franchise started in Florida 10 years ago, with the idea that kids play sports to have fun, not to become the next draft pick.
The local franchise is in its fourth year. It offers leagues for many popular sports, but tackle football is not one of them.
"The great thing about flag football is that there's a lot less contact and, by having less contact than tackle, it reduces the chances of head injury," Prew said.
It can also increase player satisfaction.
Witness Steven Rufino. He's 11 and on Prew's flag football team. He played tackle football for three years, from age 7 to 9, before turning to flag football.
"He's actually very big for his age, but he's not particularly fast, so they put him on the offensive/defensive line, and he was just banging heads constantly, and it really freaked me out just doing the research on concussions and the NFL and all the drama that's happening there," said Steven's dad, Steve Rufino.
Rufino said it turned out that his son also preferred flag football. He gets more exercise than he would simply standing to block, and his dad is pretty sure he's getting better preparation as an all-around athlete.
"I think this actually teaches more in terms of skills," Rufino said. "You've got more focus on balance, more hand-eye coordination. It's not just about attack and contact."
"Parents see us as an alternative," said Reuter.
Some parents like the scheduling aspect of the franchise. Kids play and practice on the same day, so the commitment is just one day each week. Each sport is offered during all four seasons. Some of the flag football players still play tackle football during their schools' seasons. That's up to them.
For Chad Brown, tackle is something he will consider for his son when he gets older, but not at age 6.
"I've got nothing against football at all and I watch it and enjoy it," Brown said. "But I think kids this young have a tough time understanding how best to hit and how best to avoid getting hurt."
That explains why football is not the only sport where i9 Sports takes a different approach.
The soccer teams have a strict no-heading policy. The logic is that players ages 3 to 12 don't have the developmental skills to head the ball properly on the forehead and instead may incorrectly head the ball on the top of the head or the temple, causing greater risk for concussion.
Reuter said parents who want their kids to make a career in sports probably won't look to i9 Sports.
"They would probably choose a traveling team," he said.
But it provides everything Rufino is looking for with his two boys.
"You get the same type of competitiveness with this, the same teamwork and athleticism and exercise without the worry about injuries," Rufino said.
"The coaches here do just as much planning as the competitive leagues," Reuter said. "We have coaches that have brilliant plays. The competitive aspect that you need in society is still there. It's just being done in a way that's respectful to people, respectful to the values that we as a society will be better off following."
It's an approach he hopes to see grow.
The local franchise is also growing. It offers flag football, cheerleading, soccer, T-ball and basketball. The next sport Reuter hopes to add is lacrosse.
Copyright 2013 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) All rights reserved.
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