Youth football organizations hope a research fund built into the $765 million settlement between the National Football League and its players will help to reassure parents that the game is getting safer.
The settlement, announced Thursday, ends a years-long dispute between the NFL and more than 4,500 retired players who claim the league "ignored, minimized, disputed and actively suppressed" awareness of the link between concussions and chronic neurological disease.
The deal includes $675 million in compensation to former players or their families, a $75 million investment in baseline neurological testing and a $10 million research and education fund.
"This will mean more research adding to what we're already doing on a national level in terms of football player safety," said Steve Alic, spokesman for the Indianapolis-based nonprofit organization USA Football. "Player safety will be advanced not just in football but in every sport."
Youth football registration has decreased in recent years, Alic said, noting that numbers for basketball, soccer and baseball were also down. But he's optimistic that programs aimed at educating families about the dangers of concussions and teaching kids safer ways to play will keep participation strong.
"Parents are gaining the assurance that coaches are prepared to teach the game better and safer," he said, noting that 2.8 million kids between the ages of 6 and 14 currently play in youth tackle leagues. "And the additional research money coming from this [settlement] is good news for all sports."
This year USA Football, which describes itself the "national governing body" for youth and amateur football, launched "Heads Up Football" in 2,800 youth leagues across all 50 states, Alic said. On top of raising concussion awareness, the program teaches kids to tackle safely without using their heads.
"It takes the head out of the play," he said, noting that the program will expand to high schools in 2014. "It eliminates a lot of the potential issues that could arise from tackling."
"Is there more to learn and do? Yes, there certainly is," Alic said. "But there's strong momentum here. Behavior change is the key."
Experts agree that changing the game is the only way to protect players from head injuries, but head-first tackling isn't the only way to get a concussion. Whiplash injuries from a clean hard hit can slingshot the brain inside the skull, and repeated "subclinical injuries" can add up to a major problem.
"You might not have an outright concussion, but these multiple hits to head have potential consequences in the short and long term," said Dr. Dennis Cardone, a sports medicine expert and a director of NYU Langone's Concussion Center.
Head injury symptoms are often more persistent and severe in younger athletes, according to Cardone.
"There's some question as to whether hitting should be limited, whether you should be playing flag football until you're 12," he said, adding that parents are "absolutely" worried about the risks of youth football, some going so far as to say their child will never play the game. "I think we need to learn a lot more about concussion's treatment and its consequences. Football's getting better, but it still has a long way to go."
ABC News' chief health and medical editor Dr. Richard Besser told "Good Morning America" that football won't be safe until the game is fundamentally changed.
"As a parent I didn't let my kids play football. And as a pediatrician I make sure my parents know the risks," he said. "I tell them, 'Pick another sport.'"