⬛ Guest Columnist
By Kevin Lacey
Special to The Outlook
La Cañada Gladiators Junior All American Football has been fielding teams in this community since the mid-1960s. We have decided, however, that there will be no Junior All American football in 2019. We think our community needs to know why we took this route and our intentions for 2020. We have discussed our decision and the rationale behind it with the city and the La Cañada Sports Coalition, and are happy to report they are in full support.
At the heart of this decision is our belief that our conference is moving in a direction that does not represent the best interests of our participants, that is contrary to our community’s philosophy of what youth football should be, and that conflicts with current medical opinion regarding youth football.
For well over 25 years in Junior All American, each of the four tackle divisions had an established range of three years and limited body weights. For example, the Gremlin Division comprised participants between ages 8-10 and had a maximum weight of 120 pounds. This ensured that participants would be playing with others of their own ages and similar weights. To complement the four tackle divisions, there was one flag division of 6-8-year-olds.
This year, the conference radically altered the divisional makeup. First, the conference decided that there would be no weight limit in any division. Second, the conference limited players to a two-year window. The result is that, in every division, there will be some very large players — and some very small ones — and that, in our view, renders the sport potentially, and unnecessarily, more hazardous. The unlimited weight has not been well-received by many of our parents, who understandably opted out of the program.
Moreover, we have long favored expanding the flag division to be more inclusive and to include older players. Instead, our conference constricted it and limited it to ages 5-6. At the same time, our conference decided to create a new tackle division for ages 7-8. We adamantly opposed both of these decisions.
At a time when the impact of collisions on children at a young age is under close study and scrutiny, we believe the decision to expand tackle to include even younger children is highly questionable if not downright irresponsible. There is simply no reason for a 7-year-old to play tackle. They are not prepared and, we believe, no amount of coaching can prepare them for a collision sport. The counter-arguments advanced were that “other leagues were taking similar steps” and that this would better prepare the participants to compete in high school. We found these arguments unpersuasive.
All these decisions by our conference are part and parcel of a growing malignancy in youth sports that is not confined to football: that is, the philosophy that youth sports are “feeder programs” to prepare participants for high school (and college). This is not now or ever has been the goal of youth sports. It is a statistical fact that only a relatively small minority of any youth sport will go on to play in high school. Even less for college. For most participants, AYSO, Junior All American and Little League will be their sole soccer, football or baseball experience. These participants should be the target audience, and catering to the few players who may play later does a great disservice to the rest of the participants, leaving many with feelings of inferiority and frustration. We simply can no longer be part of this.
We have decided therefore to devote this season to restructuring our program to fit the players and families in our community. Gladiators 2020 will likely include a tackle component and an expanded flag component. However, we are most eager to receive the input from the families in the community before finalizing program design. We will be reaching out to Gladiator families directly, but we also welcome any input from community members. They can email me at email@example.com. In addition, the Gladiators will remain an active participant in the Sports Coalition and continue to support city projects, as they have for the past 50 years.
We would very much like to hear from the community regarding the direction because, after all, it is a program for your children.
Editor’s note: Kevin Lacey has served as the Gladiators’ president for the past 15 years and first became involved with the organization in 2000.