Local school district, YMCA make changes to football programs

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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) -- Outside the Eau Claire YMCA, there stands a sculpture, which puts football in a romantic tackling pose – “Hey Marylou / Blindside,” by Lee Leuning and Sherri Treeby.

Football equipment sits inside a storage room at the Eau Claire YMCA on Monday.

Inside, however, all of the gear needed to play the sport has an uncertain future.

On Monday, the YMCA announced its dropping its fifth and sixth grade tackle football program, effective fall of 2018.

"Our first priority is our athletes' safety and we think that, by offering tackle football, we may not be being the most responsible organization in keeping the kids safe," Bonnie Nicolai, sports director for the Eau Claire YMCA, said to WEAU 13 News on Monday.

According to a release, the Eau Claire YMCA has seen a 50 percent drop in enrollment for its tackle football program.

“Concern over injury, particularly concussions, has grown among athletes, parents, coaches and football organizations,” the statement said.

That's affecting the Eau Claire Area School District, which will transition its seventh grade program to flag football, starting this fall.

"We know that just the physical size and differences between what a 7th grade athlete can just physically bring to the field can be really significant. So we're hoping that the adjustment to flag can really level that out," David Oldenberg, the director of academic services for the district, said to WEAU 13 News on Monday.

Oldenberg said the move is similar to ones made at Menomonie and Edgar school districts – football programs which have had much success on the gridiron.

Safety, however, supersedes success. Erik Dickson, M.D. with HSHS pointed to a recent study, which says roughly 20 percent of middle and high school student-athletes reported suffering a concussion.

"We really need to try to do our best to protect the brain and it's probably a good idea to wait until after the 7th grade or so before we start allowing tackle football, so that we aren't causing any more trauma in those real high developed portions of the childhood,” Dr. Dickson said to WEAU 13 News on Monday.

Nicolai said there's no set plan yet for the YMCA's football equipment, but says that's something she doesn't mind tackling.

"This is a step we need to take to keep more players playing the game, and if that means that they play flag football until there in 8th grade, then I completely support," she said.

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