Youth tackle football in danger of extinction

Proposed legislation could ban youth tackle football until high school

More stories from Scott Procter



Amid worries of CTE, youth tackle football could be a thing of the past.

Earlier this month, assembly members Kevin McCarty (D – Sacramento) and Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D – San Diego) proposed the “Safe Youth Football Act,” which will prevent children from playing tackle football until high school.

The aim of the bill is to protect youth from possible brain injuries and “prevent young athletes from sustaining long-term brain damage caused by repetitive tackling, hitting and blocking,” according to McCarty’s website.

The bill states children who wait until high school to play tackle football have a better chance of avoiding effects that come with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), including depression, memory loss and dementia.

McCarty almost exclusively cites the work of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist who discovered CTE, the degenerative brain disease several former NFL players like Junior Seau have been diagnosed with. Seau was found to have CTE after his suicide in 2012 and since then, CTE has become a virtual household term.

“The research is clear — when children participate in high-impact, high-contact sports, there is a 100 percent risk of exposure to brain damage,” said Omalu, who is also the author of the award winning book on CTE, Concussion. “Once you know the risk involved in something, what’s the first thing you do? Protect children from it.”

The proposed bill comes just a week after the family of a football player who committed suicide and was later found to have CTE sued the youth league Pop Warner.

The family of Joseph Chernach, who killed himself in 2012 at age 25, is seeking at least $5 million in punitive damages for the death. Chernach’s camp said Pop Warner “knew or should have known that tackle football was dangerous for children and exposed children to head injuries, including dementia,” according to the New York Times.

McCarty urged California to use flag football as an alternative to the tackle version of the sport. The proposed bill points out that non-contact youth football has produced a number of NFL legends such as Jerry Rice, Walter Payton and Tom Brady. Current NFL quarterback Drew Brees has even created a non-contact youth flag football league out of concerns for his own kids.

However, flag football may not be the easy solution McCarty and others think it is.

In February of 2017, the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine published a study that concluded flag football is not a safer alternative to tackle football, in fact, it may even be more dangerous.

“Rates of injury in youth football are relatively low. Youth flag football has a higher injury rate than tackle football. A significantly different rate of severe injury or concussion between tackle and flag football was not identified,” according to the study. “The higher injury rate in flag football needs to be considered when determining the relative safety of flag football and tackle football.”

I have played tackle football since I was a tiny five-year-old first-grader and I could not have imagined my life without it. Football is truly more than a game —  it is a tool that can be used to teach youth about the characteristics of toughness, perseverance, discipline and even life.

I fear for the inner-city of my hometown of Chicago, Illinois if this bill sweeps across the nation (Illinois, New York and Maryland are also considering similar legislation).

Football, along with other sports, is often used as an outlet to stay away from trouble in violence-stricken cities like Chicago. If tackle football is no longer an option for these kids, more will end up on the streets and unsupervised instead of on a football field receiving guidance and valuable life lessons.

I am all for the safety of kids and doing whatever it takes to protect them. However, if the effects of the alternative are no better than the current results of the problem, I see no reason for a sweeping change as drastic as this. Youth tackle football has gotten much safer over the past decade with new equipment, technique and rules. While it still needs to improve, eradicating it entirely until high school will do more harm than good.

Besides, who likes the government telling them what they should or shouldn’t let their child do anyway? I know I wouldn’t.