When the NFL implemented a new kickoff rule this offseason, commissioner Roger Goodell cited safety as a reason for the change. By moving the line of scrimmage after a touchback to the 25-yard line, the NFL theoretically incentivized teams to kneel in the end zone. Eventually, the NFL could eliminate the kickoff, which is regarded as one of the most violent plays in football, altogether.
But if it ever comes to that, the NFL won't make history. Another national football organization already beat them to it. On Thursday, Pop Warner became the first national football organization to ban kickoffs.
The largest youth football organization in the country announced the change on Thursday. In its announcement, Pop Warner wrote that the rule is "aimed at significantly reducing the amount of full-speed, head-on impact in games."
"We are constantly working to make the game safer and better for our young athletes, and we think this move is an important step in that direction," said Jon Butler, Pop Warner's executive director, via the organization's website. "Eliminating kickoffs at this level adds another layer of safety without changing the nature of this great game. We are excited to look at the results at the end of the year as we explore additional measures."
The rule change will be tested in the three youngest levels of play: Tiny Mite (ages 5 to 7), Mitey Mite (7 to 9) and Junior Pee Wee (8 to 10). In those divisions, offenses will begin possessions at their own 35-yard line.
After one season, the organization said it will consider spreading the rule to the older divisions.
It might seem like a small change, but it could be significant. If the NFL eliminates kickoffs down the line and wants to minimize the kind of criticism that could lead to a loss of fan support, a change at the youth level would help. By starting at the youth level, football without kickoffs might eventually be established as the new norm once the kids who are currently 5 or 10 reach the NFL and adulthood. It could, in theory, change the culture of the game.
There's no guarantee that ever happens, but it's a situation worth monitoring, especially if Pop Warner implements the rule on a league-wide basis.