Local coaches, players chime in on proposal

TIM JEAN/Staff file photo Line coaches Dan Mackland-Rivera, right, and Ozzie Diaz, back left, work with members of the C-team in blocking drills during Lawrence Pop Warner football practice last August. A bill before the state Legislature would ban tackle football for those in seventh grade or below.

BOSTON — Tackle football for elementary and middle school children could be outlawed in Massachusetts under a proposal aimed at preventing brain trauma among younger players.

A bill filed last week by House Minority Leader Brad Jones, R-North Reading, and Rep. Paul Schmid, D-Westport, would prohibit tackle football through the seventh grade and fine schools and youth sports leagues $2,000 for each violation of the rules -- up to $10,000 if the violations result in "serious physical harm" to players. Kids would still be allowed to play flag or touch football, and high school tackle football would be allowed.

Supporters of the legislation, which had 17 co-sponsors as of Tuesday, say research into brain trauma suggests tackle football is more harmful to younger players than once thought.

But youth football organizers say a ban isn't needed as the sport evolves to limit head injuries and teach players safer ways to tackle.

"The safety of the kids is our No. 1 priority," said Ron Vallely, executive director of the Bay State Youth Football and Cheer Conference, one of eight leagues in New England and a part of American Youth Football.

"Every day, we're trying to make the game a little safer by adjusting techniques in tackling and working with the manufacturers of helmets and pads,” he said.

Youth football leagues are weighing other steps to improve safety, he added, such as limiting contact in practice and eliminating kickoffs at younger age levels.

"But it shouldn't be up to politicians to decide whether its healthy and right for a kid to play tackle football -- it should be up to the parents," he added.

Those who support the measure say it’s meant to protect children.

"There is significant science detailing repetitive head impacts have long term neurological consequences, especially when they occur during brain development," said Schmid, the bill's primary sponsor, in a statement. "The trauma does not need to escalate to the point of a concussion to be harmful to children."

Chris Nowinski, co-founder and CEO of the Boston-based Concussion Legacy Foundation, said a growing body of research shows that football players who started playing tackle football before age 12 have higher rates of depression, anxiety and memory issues than those who started after that age. He said the state needs to intervene, to protect kids.

"The brain was never meant to get hit in the head thousands of times over your life, and it causes serious, long-term problems for players," he said. "Children's brains are rapidly developing, especially between between the ages of 8 and 13, and I don't think anyone would say its a good time for them to get hit in the head and suffer a brain injury."

Nowinski said he doesn't believe it makes a difference how kids tackle or what padding and equipment they wear. It's the constant impact that creates the problems.

"The New England Patriots are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to take on the risk of brain injury from playing contact football," he said. "Kids, who couldn't possibly understand what that risk is, are being asked to play the same sport by the same rules."

Kids who start playing tackle football before the 7th grade are more likely to have cognitive, mood and behavior issues as adults, and showed symptoms of neurodegenerative disease like chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, and Alzheimer’s disease decades earlier, according to a recent study by the American Neurological Association.

Several states including New York, California, Maryland and New Jersey, recently weighed similar proposals. To date, no state has yet approved a ban on youth tackle football.

Fans of youth football and even some professional players have panned the Massachusetts proposal on Twitter and other social media.

"This is really sad to me as someone who has played this game since I was 6 years old," New England Patriots offensive lineman David Andrews tweeted. "I understand people’s concerns with children playing and I respect that. But let parents and kids decide if they want to play or not."

Meanwhile, an online petition calling on Gov. Charlie Baker and legislative leaders to reject the proposal had gathered nearly 5,000 signatures as of Tuesday.

The petitioners citied "advancements youth football makes each year in the area's of safety, coaches training, new equipment, styles of play, and rule changes."

"These advancements are largely overlooked by the recent crusade against the sport of football," the petitioners wrote. "We acknowledge the risks, but want the choice to play or not to play left up to individual families, while considering the safety advances of their local and regional organizations."

Despite criticism from youth football fans, it's not clear where voters stand on the issue.

A WBUR poll last year found at least 75 percent of the state's registered voters believe tackle football is unsafe for children before high school. A similar percentage of people said they would support government regulation of youth football to reduce the risks.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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