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Locker room talk: Super Bowl champs Martellus and Michael Bennett’s father says NFL can do more

The biggest question with youth football is who is coaching your kids

The NFL completed its 97th season Sunday with one of the most electrifying finishes in championship history. But as the excitement of Sunday’s dramatic finale recedes, the NFL gets back to business and under the dark cloud that won’t go away.

Escalating public attention, aggressive reporting of lawsuits and medical studies have put the multibillion-dollar industry on the defensive. Player safety and concussion issues hover over the sport at every level and some analytics show that participation in youth sports has declined.

One of the most overlooked aspects of the debate over safety is the quality of and access to coaching education at the youth level. Indeed, the most unasked question in the debate is who is coaching your children.

I have thought about the question for a number of years and part of the answer crystallized after Sunday’s game during a conversation with Michael Bennett Sr.

Bennett’s youngest son, Martellus, is the New England Patriots tight end. His older son, Michael plays for the Seattle Seahawks and won a Super Bowl title in 2016.

New England Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett (88) poses for a selfie with his brother Michael Bennett who plays for the Seattle Seahawks while on the field for pre game warm ups. The Atlanta Falcons play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium in Houston on Feb. 5, 2017.

New England Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett (88) poses for a selfie with his brother Michael Bennett who plays for the Seattle Seahawks while on the field for pre game warm ups. The Atlanta Falcons play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium in Houston on Feb. 5, 2017.

Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

As Bennett described how his sons began playing football — flag at age 8, tackle at 11 — we talked about injuries and concussions and the crisis facing youth football. The crisis is not the game’s physicality; the critical issue often overlooked is the quality of youth coaching and creating a far-reaching educational apparatus that will train youth coaches.

Coaching proficiency is as significant — in some ways more significant — than considerations about equipment and proposed rule changes aimed at making the game safer.

Last week, The New York Times reported that the national governing body for amateur football, USA Football, intended to introduce a version of youth football, modified tackle, that will make the game more like flag football. The new rule will eliminate 11-player teams in favor of six- to nine-player teams. The field will be smaller and, in an effort to reduce collisions, kickoffs and punts will be eliminated. Players will be rotated to different positions to minimize mismatches.

But new rules and better equipment are meaningless if significant numbers of youth coaches are ill-prepared to properly teach the game.

Youth players more at risk

Bennett said the current certification process, supported by the NFL, allows prospective coaches to go online to register and to take a test to get certified. He coaches 9- to 11-year-olds in the summer as part of a church football program in Houston.

“The NFL does a good job, but I think it should be more extensive so coaches can really know when a kid is injured or when a kid is tired, for example,” Bennett said. “That’s when a lot of kids get hurt. The NFL should invest more in our lower-level schools to help those coaches help those players be safe out there.”

What new rules and regulations do not account for is ambition and ego. Even at the high school level, the pressure to win can lead some coaches to compromise a player’s safety.

“Your job is to win football games, that’s how you take care of your family,” Bennett said. “You got your best player. He gets a little injured. The coach asks, ‘You OK?’ The kids are too afraid to tell you the truth. They don’t want to make that decision. So they’ll put the kid back in the game, and that’s when our kids get hurt.”

For Bennett, the more fundamental issue is having highly qualified coaches and having those coaches able to monitor the health and welfare of their players. This is virtually mission impossible.

At the professional and big-time college levels, coaches have latitude to police players and regulate everything from diet to making sure players have the right amount of sleep by imposing curfews.

There are no such controls at the youth level.

“You may know your own kid,” he said, “but outside of that, you don’t know what a kid is eating or how the kid is sleeping. So you get him in a game and you don’t know what’s going on. We assume that he’s got a good night’s rest, we assume that he’s had a good meal, but you don’t know that for a fact.”

The safety issues seldom focus on parental involvement and accountability in monitoring a coach’s effectiveness and competence. “Parents whose kids are in sports should understand everything about their sport and do everything they can do to keep those kids safe,” Bennett said.

“I didn’t miss a practice when my kids were playing football. Middle school, high school, I didn’t miss a practice, so I knew everything that was going on.”

Bennett said that even if he knew 10 years ago what he knows now he would have allowed his two sons to play the game.

“Without a doubt,” he said Sunday evening.” There’s a risk, but there’s risk riding your bike.”

A few years ago, I had a conversation at my barbershop in Harlem with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Among those in attendance was a 12-year-old who played youth football.

Goodell asked the young player about proper tackling technique. The boy described a technique he had been taught that was not only wrong but dangerous.

Although the conversation took place a few years ago, I’m certain ill-informed but well-meaning coaches are still putting young players at risk.

Who’s coaching your kids?

During a forum at San Jose State University two weeks ago, Anquan Boldin, a veteran of 14 NFL seasons, said he had little faith in youth football coaches.

“I don’t trust these youth league coaches. Where I’m from, youth league football is big business,” said Boldin, who lives in Florida during the offseason. He told of hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars being wagered on youth football games, and gung-ho coaches using more physically mature players to run roughshod over less developed players.

It’s absurd,” he said. “This should be football in its purest form, yet you have some people who perverted it.”

Bolden has two sons, 12 and 6. The oldest plays flag football.

“I’m conflicted: should I let him play football or should I not?”

I’ve always felt that football’s greatest challenge — and the source of its fretting over losing young players — is keeping middle-class and higher-income families whose children have options, engaged in the sport as players, but most profitably, as fans.

On the other hand, the game will continue to attract a steady flow of players from less-fortunate backgrounds, for whom the odds of making hundreds of thousands even millions of dollars at a young age are remote.

A couple of weeks ago, former NFL linebacker Takeo Spikes sat on a panel at San Jose State University and explained why, despite the aches and pains, he would play again.

“You’re going to get damaged,” Spikes said, referring to injuries. “I’m sitting here. My back is killing me. I’m not trying to act numb to the situation. I’m just saying the game of football, bottom line, has provided me and my family so many opportunities. It’s given me this grand stage to sit here with these distinguished gentlemen.

Bolden, sitting on the same panel, echoed Spikes.

“I look at where I come from and where I am now and the opportunities that have been afforded to me by the game of football, the lives I’ve been able to touch and change through football,” Bolden said. “I know had it not been for football, I wouldn’t know half the people I know. I wouldn’t have the influence I have now.”

Now comes the dilemma.

While Bolden may have believed football was his best route to achieving a bright financial future for his family, his son does not have to play for economic reasons. He plays because he looks up to his father and wants to follow in his footsteps.

Will he or won’t he allow his son to play?

“I’m conflicted because I know there’s a great side of football. I also know there’s a dangerous side of football.”

There are thousands of former NFL players who can teach virtually every aspect of football. The sport will become far less dangerous when the NFL presses them into service and focuses its attention and resources on producing better coaches at the youth level.

The game’s future may hang in the balance.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.