While NFL concussions are down, parents continue to debate football safety

Willie Grace | 2/2/2015, 2:29 p.m. | Updated on 2/2/2015, 2:29 p.m.
The league says concussions in regular season games dropped 25% in 2014 from the number in 2013, and concussions caused ...
Ohio State players celebrate after the College Football Playoff National Championship Game against Oregon Monday, Jan. 12, 2015, in Arlington, Texas. Ohio State won 42-20. AP / Eric Gay

(CNN) -- As families across America prepare to watch the Super Bowl, the safety of the game remains hotly debated in households across the country.

After mounting concerns about brain injuries plaguing older players who experienced repeated concussions, the NFL says it is making progress when it comes to keeping current players safe

The league says concussions in regular season games dropped 25% in 2014 from the number in 2013, and concussions caused by helmet-to-helmet hits were down 28% during the same time period, according to a newly released report.

But worries about concussions are just part of the reason why some families are having second thoughts about letting their children play football.

As we've learned more and more about the dangers of concussions and head injuries in football, including from research on the brains of professional players who died, we have seen a drop in the number of kids playing the game.

Participation in Pop Warner youth football leagues dropped 9.5% from 2010 to 2012, according to a report in 2013 by ESPN.com.

Last year, after three players from three different states died in one week, I asked parents whether they think the sport is too violent and dangerous for their children.

On one side are parents like John Furjanic of Chicago, who played football through high school and during college at Yale. He says his 7-year-old daughter will never play football, and if he had a son, he would never let him play either.

"I have had over 10 concussions playing football," said Furjanic, who says he was coached by some of the best in the business. "No coaching technique can result in safety when the point of playing defense is to play with reckless abandon. The kids today call it blowing people up. The game is violent, and people get hurt in violent games."

On the other side are parents like Ben Smith, chief executive officer of Wanderful Media, whose eighth-grader plays football.

Smith said he has certainly thought about the risks, but says the training put in place in children's programs during the last few years has given him the confidence to let his son play.

That training is part of the Heads Up Football program funded by the NFL. Coaches are educated on how to deal with concussions and how to teach safer ways to tackle, where players are taught to keep their heads up and to lead contact with their shoulders, not their heads.

"Hitting has dramatically changed the game from when I was on the field over 20 years ago," Smith said.

"In the end, it comes down to the league, training and coaches. You have to be comfortable that they are putting safety first."

Amanda Rodriguez of Frederick, Maryland, says her 9-year-old is more passionate about football than just about anything else, and her 6-year-old just started playing, as well. She urged her sons' league to adopt the Heads Up Football program and it did.

"I think that it's something you can definitely see in how the younger kids are playing versus how the older boys are playing football because it's a whole different way of playing," said Rodriguez, a mom of three and host of the blog DudeMom.com. "So I feel safer knowing that my kids are playing in a league that is doing something proactive about their safety."