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Youth Football Controversy: Clark Pop Warner Suspends Season, St. Agnes CYO Starts Flag League

Clark Pop Warner has operated youth football in Clark for 54 years. It will suspend its 2016 season.  Credits: N. Clee

CLARK, NJ – It’s a game of tackle versus touch and touch is in the lead.  After 54 years as Clark’s youth football league, Clark Pop Warner has canceled its football program for the 2016 season. 

One league official claims the fault lies squarely with a newly-formed flag-football league sponsored by the St. Agnes CYO.

“We will not be able to field any teams for this year, unfortunately due to low enrollment and more importantly, some untimely and spiteful and vengeful people who live in our town decided to start a FLAG league of their own and competed with our league with some very manipulating and enticing advertising and a lower enrollment fee,” Clark Pop Warner president Arturo De Martinis said in an email to Pop Warner parents on behalf of the league’s board.

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According to Vincent Gioffre, a former Pop Warner coach and a driving force behind the new flag football team,  CYO is based on Christian values; part of which is providing opportunities for community interaction.

St. Agnes CYO had a flag football program in the past and organizers decided to bring it back as an option for children and parents concerned about high contact sports, Gioffre said.

“This team was meant to be a community building activity alongside of Pop Warner,” he said.  “We wanted to start a 1-day, low-impact kind of thing, not a lot of time; just an opportunity for those kids who want to play football but didn’t want to tackle.   So kids can come join in and have fun.”

The CYO league is strictly a non-contact, flag option for children through seventh grade, Gioffre said.    Teams practice on Mondays and play on Saturdays, specifically to avoid scheduling conflicts with Pop Warner, he said.  

Pop Warner offered a flag option for the youngest of players: ages 5 through 7.  De Martinis said that at age 8, depending on a player’s birthday, children switched to “full-equipment.”

“Football is a contact sport,” he said.  “It’s football, for God’s sake!” 

Without the early switchover to a tackle program, children will be unprepared for the rigors of high-school football, De Martinis feels.

“For the parents of children who think this (the flag program) is (a) sufficient amount of training and knowledge to move up to the next level, which is contact, they are sadly mistaken and your child, God forbid, will get hurt,” De Martinis wrote. “Clark Pop Warner made a commitment over 50 years ago to teach the basic fundamentals of football to all our levels starting with flag.” 

Clark Pop Warner used the Pop Warner league’s “Heads Up Football” program. Developed to address safety concerns in youth football, the program incorporates coach certification, education and training techniques, and concussion/heat/cardiac arrest recognition and response protocols.

Gioffre, a high school football coach for 28 years, said that many of his players pick up the game as freshman, never having played in a youth contact program.

De Martinis acknowledged that Clark Pop Warner “has been feeling the effects of low enrollment for the past couple of years.”

“Parents [are] concerned on the topic of concussions that are highly publicized on every sports network channel,” De Martinis wrote in an email to TAP into Clark.

This is one area where the men seem to agree. 

Gioffre said the 2015 movie, “Concussion,” added to many people’s fear of football. The movie explores the impact of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) brain degeneration in professional football players.  

“The sport I love, I am fearful I’m going to be on the sidelines when they say there isn’t going to be a team,” Gioffre said. “I am afraid I am going to witness the death of this sport because of fear of injury and concussion.”

Gioffre thinks that youth flag football might help save traditional football.  

“It’s a great was to reintroduce it (football) to people who may have walked away, never played, are leery of it,” Gioffre said. “Ultimately this idea might save the sport, when people can get comfortable with it.”

As far as De Martinis is concerned, the opposite is true. 

“Our Clark Pop Warner is in the midst of being destroyed, a league that has brought family together every Sunday for the past 54 plus years, a league that has been in existence since 1962 is in jeopardy of being shut down by another newly formed flag football league in town which is called CYO Flag Football sponsored by St. Agnes Catholic Church of Clark,” De Martinis wrote. “As of today, Clark Pop Warner has had to shut its doors to our community because of this.”

And indeed, Clark Pop Warner will not play football in 2016.

“Please, let’s not make this happen next year.” De Martinis said. “Let’s keep Clark Pop Warner alive.

The Clark Pop Warner cheerleading program continues for the 2016 season, although without the football program the girls will have no one to cheer for, De Martinis said. 


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