shaun hillVikings backup quarterback Shaun Hill has placed himself at the center of football’s most important story: player safety.

He’s an employee of a league that has spent recent years defending its reputation and history as it relates to concussions and overall brain health. But he’s also a father of two very young boys — he’s shown here pictured with Theo, then 18 months old, at last year’s training camp in July — and has roots in a small Midwest town.

Parsons, Kansas — a town of 10,000 and from what I remember of a long ago youth baseball tournament I played there, the very definition of the heartland — is the setting. Hill has stepped into a burgeoning discussion/controversy over a decision there to start tackle football in fifth grade, while limiting third- and fourth-graders to playing flag football. The Vikings QB wrote a long letter to the Parsons newspaper, which was recently reprinted via as a companion piece to a Kevin Seifert piece on the subject.

In it, Hill comes out as a proponent of the new plan to keep kids out of tackle football until fifth grade — a sentiment that runs counter to how things have traditionally been run in Parsons. Hill himself didn’t start playing tackle football until 6th grade and says he plans the same for his young boys. He makes strong arguments about player development and opportunities for more inclusive participation that will come from the new way of doing things. He also makes it clear that he is not anti-football.

I am a huge proponent of the sport of football. I believe that boys are meant to be outside, getting dirty, being physical, and competing every day. I believe that football teaches so many things to the kids that play it. It is the ultimate team sport. There is a position on the field for every person, no matter their height, weight, or speed.

At the heart of the matter, though, is safety. Writes Hill:

The board and I felt strongly that adding the extra weight of a helmet to the underdeveloped neck of third and fourth graders tackling and hitting each other made no sense at all. Our plan is to play flag football with these kids to keep them off of the ground. We still plan to put them in helmets for protection, and for building neck strength for their future tackle football years.

It’s a measured argument worth applauding, and it will be fascinating to see how it plays out.

On the other hand, while this stance is worth applauding as it pertains to safety, it also could be akin to taking a couple of cups of water out of a sinking boat filled with 100 gallons.

While keeping kids out of tackle football until fifth grade as opposed to third grade has benefits for short-term health and development, the long-term picture wouldn’t appear to change much. Ann McKee, a professor of neurology and pathology at the Boston University School of Medicine — the very forefront of football-related chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) research — said this in November:

We know football players get 1,000 to 1,500 sub-concussive hits per season, even in high school — that’s tens of thousands of hits if they play 10 years. The sub-concussive injury, the asymptomatic injury, is probably very important in developing this disease. CTE has only been found in individuals who sustained repetitive, cumulative traumas.

Eliminating a small fraction of those traumas at a young age, when impacts aren’t as great, is notable but might be akin to a misdirection when we’re talking about solving the overall problem of brain health and football. I imagine stories like starting tackle football at a later age are the types football (with the NFL at the forefront) will be latching onto in greater number as “evidence” of improved safety even in the face of harder evidence showing the sport’s continued dangers.

Again, that’s not to criticize Hill in any way. His support carries weight (and he’s even sponsoring the flag football league). That’s a lot for one person to do, and even if progress is incremental it’s still progress.

It’s just to say I sense stories like this will be used as part of a mounting exit strategy for the league is it tries to work through its massive perception (and let’s face it, reality) problem.

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