PHOENIX (KSAZ) - As the Super Bowl approaches, there is little doubt that at least amongst some people, football fever is running high. Despite the enthusiasm over the game in Houston, there is another concern on the field: injuries.
Within the past few years, the NFL has had open discussions about football-related head trauma. It is a concern that has reached the local level, and spiked an interest in Flag Football. A growing number of Valley parents are switching from traditional Tackle Football, to Flag Football, which is considered by some to be a safer alternative.
The question, however, is whether Flag Football is actually safer than traditional Tackle Football.
The on-the-field rules for Flag Football are simple: never let the opposing team pull your flag, and never take another player down. The latter rule is taken very seriously by Scott Partridge, a former college football player.
"The biggest thing is we are non-contact," said Partridge.
Partridge's involvement with Grid Iron Flag Football in 2012 partly came out of passion for the sport.
Besides passion, his involvement came partly out of need.
"Starting out at 7-8 years old, they're going to be playing Tackle Football six years before High School," said Partridge. "It's like, why put that on their body? Their heads?"
Partridge said he has seen a steady increase in participation in the past few years.
"We've got over 400 kids in the league," said Partridge, who said many of the kids in the league are in between the ages of seven to 11.
The rising popularity for Grid Iron Flag Football mirrors a nationwide increase in popularity for Flag Football itself. According to USA Football, Flag Football's national governing body, the sport experienced an 8.7% surge in participation among children aged six to 14, from 2015 to 2016.
In contrast, data shows traditional Tackle Football saw a mere 1.9% increase in participation, amongst kids the same age.
Many have pointed to the connection between Tackle Football and brain injuries. In the last football season, NFL players suffered 182 reported concussions during regular season games, which is a 58% rise over the 2014 season, and the highest in four years of record keeping.
On the high school level, Tackle Football accounts for 47% of all reported sports concussions, with 33% of those concussions happening, during practice.
Medical experts, like Dr. Javier Cardenas with the Barrow Neurological Institute's Concussion and Brain Injury Center, say while the first hit can prove problematic, the second or third head impact can cause long-term, permanent brain damage.
Dr. Cardenas said while a concussion will not appear on an MRI, parents need to pay attention to how a child acts, after he or she was hit in the head while playing.
"What we often see after a concussion is the symptoms can get worse between 24 to 72 hours," said Dr. Cardenas. "That's actually one of the things that we want to tell parents. We expect them to have those things like headaches, dizziness, and mood changes, thinking changes, and it can actually get worse before it gets better."
Medical experts like Dr. Cardenas categorizes sports into a few categories: combat, collision, contact, and non-contact. Tackle Football falls under the collision category, while Flag Football is categorized as a contact sport.
That means for Flag Football, the risks for injuries associated with the sport is much less than traditional Tackle Football, but they do exist nonetheless.
"When we are looking at contact sports, we are worried about our youngest, and the reason we are worried about our youngest is because they have relatively larger heads for their body and relatively weaker necks," said Dr. Cardenas. "They can be more susceptible to a concussion, and some of them can take longer to recover than others."
For some Flag Football players, the sport, which follows similar rules to those found in Tackle Football, but where a play ends when a defensive player removed the flag worn on the belt of the ball carrier, allows them to concentrate more on sportsmanship, ability, agility, and speed.
"It's a lot more cautious, and you're not going to get seriously injured," said player Grant McCray.
Coaches say they understand eventually, the players will move on to Tackle Football. They just want to keep the kids out of Tackle Football for as long as possible, until their body is ready.