Highland Park cancels tackle football program as parents avoid the sport

HIGHLAND PARK -- The park district in north suburban Highland Park has canceled its tackle football program because so few youngsters have signed up, a clear sign head injuries are on the minds of parents and young people when it comes to football.

Football remains America’s favorite sport, so you’ll definitely find mixed opinions. But so far no parents – even of the kids who were registered to play - have complained about football being cancelled. There are fears among those who love the game that this could be the first domino in the game's eventual downfall.

These days, being the parent of a young athlete requires a bit of a balancing act. It’s why Andrew Bender and his sons are playing catch with a baseball, not a football. Bender grew up in Highland Park and has fond memories of playing youth football for the Little Giants.

"I did have fun doing it; it was a good experience, I met a lot of good people when I was doing it," Bender said.

But he says there’s no way he’d let his kids play tackle football, with all of the information now known about traumatic brain injuries and the risks involved in the game.

"Reading about the things that happen in football and the traumatic head injuries and risks – for me, for my family, it just doesn’t seem like it’s worth it," Bender said.

He’s not alone. More and more parents are making the same decision for their kids in Highland Park. At its peak in the 1980's and 1990's, the park district tackle football program for 5th-8th grade students drew 150 players. This year only 11 signed up.

"Over the last three years, we’ve really seen a decline in our registrants,” said Park District Executive Director Liza McElroy.

She says for the first time ever, the youth football program has been cancelled. She says it’s a result of a steady stream of information, like the recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which examined the brains of deceased former NFL players and found that 110 out of 111 brains had the degenerative brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE.

“It’s really been a trickle-down effect. You heard so much at the NFL, and obviously parents who are making decisions on what programs they want to sign their kids up for, you really think about it when you sign your kids up,” McEloy said.

The park district has seen an uptick in fall registration for non-contact flag football, however.

Chad Kasdin has an 11-year-old and a 9-year-old in park district flag football, and says he’s unsure if he’d let them play tackle football until they’re much older.

“With flag football, the biggest thing that I’ve noticed is the safety of it,” Kasdin said. “I was surprised to see that [football] got cancelled on one hand, on the other, because of the studies that are out there, I really wasn’t that surprised," he said.

Others defend football.

“Like most sports it develops kids, teaches them teamwork and leadership, and how to think in a situation,” AJ Wyroski said.

Wyroski is a former high school football player and a personal trainer who says football builds character and community in a way other sports don’t.

"It’s kind of sad; I train a lot of the local football players around here, and just the lights on Friday night get people pumped, so it’s a good thing for the community to gather around even for the kids to gather around," he said.

But back at the Benders, Ashton and Hayden have their own favorite sports.

"I like to play soccer and basketball," Hayden said.

“I like baseball,” Ashton said.

Hayden likes football too – but even at five years old he knows the risks, so he probably won’t play.

"I don’t want to get hurt when I’m a grown up,” Hayden said.

And Bender says when even the kids are aware of the risks, a balancing act becomes a step in the right direction.

“When you're younger, it doesn’t seem like its worth it; but all in all I don’t really think football is going to die in America," he said.

Highland Park is believed to be the first youth tackle football program in the Chicago area ever to cancel its season over these kinds of concerns. And as the flag football team begins its practice, even those kids wear helmets now.