January 21, 2024
In early January, dozens of children, some decked out in helmets and pads, showed up at the California capitol to push back against a proposal that would ban tackle football for children under 12.
The bill’s author, Democratic Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, said legislation is necessary to protect children from developing CTE – chronic traumatic encephalopathy – a degenerative disease associated with repeated head impacts.
McCarty, who first proposed outlawing tackle football for kids younger than 12 in 2018, was trying a more measured approach: phasing out tackle football for that age group over four years.
“You can love football and love our kids and try to protect our kids at the same time,” McCarty said at the hearing.
The bill passed out of committee, but before it was even scheduled for a vote, California Gov. Gavin Newsom abruptly shot it down.
“I am deeply concerned about the health and safety of our young athletes, but an outright ban is not the answer,” he said in a statement first given to Politico, adding that his office will work with the legislature to “strengthen safety in youth football.”
Robin Swanson, a Democratic strategist in California, said she wasn’t surprised by the move.
“Can you imagine what a political dumpster fire this would be? Not just for California, but for Democrats everywhere,” she told NPR.
Newsom, a nationally-recognized Democratic leader, is a surrogate for President Biden. Swanson says in an election year, he has to be careful.
“Every time we would talk about Republicans banning books, they would come back and talk about Democrats banning football,” she said.
Although she believes the proponents of the bill are correct, Swanson said tackle football territory is just too risky for politicians.
“It’s just terrible timing on their part and you know, I don’t know there’s ever a good time to take on football in America, but I think this bill is a little too far ahead of its time,” she said.
“It’s a culture”
Lorenzo Walsh, a longtime football coach in Sacramento, voiced his opposition to the bill at the hearing.
“I think parents should have a choice as to whether or not they want their kids to participate in tackle football,” he said. “It’s a tradition. It’s a culture. It brings a lot of things to the table outside of just football and competing.”
He told NPR he also views tackle football as a way to save lives.
“Why join a gang when you can join the football team?” he asked, standing on the sidelines as his team practiced drills at Tahoe Park.
Walsh’s son, Alonzo, was killed a decade ago in South Sacramento in a gang-related drive-by shooting. He said that loss motivates him to coach, and drives him to keep mentoring and supporting kids in the area.
Walsh, who coaches kids as young as six, said the structure and discipline of football is a healthy way to get kids feeling proud and united. He added they’re like a family – his team travels to high school and NFL games, and during the off season, they go camping and take boats out on the Delta. Plus, he said the sport gives them a much-needed outlet for their feelings, and a goal to shoot for – college, maybe the pros.
That’s the case for fourth grader Waylon Parker, whose big brother just got a full ride football scholarship to Washington State.
“When you start hitting people, your head could be hurting like a lot, a lot,” said Parker, who started playing at age six.
Since it’s the off-season for tackle football, Parker is trying a game called 7-on-7 for the first time. It’s a type of touch football, with no tackling.
His teammate, 12 year-old Kainoa Navarrete, said he’s having fun with the game, even though there’s no tackling. He said he likes to channel his feelings through tackle football, and loves goofing around with the other kids on the team.
But he said he sometimes worries about his head, even with his helmet on.
“Sometimes I get hit in the head a lot and it kind of stings, like a headache,” he said.
Navarrete said he had a concussion last year that made him sleep all day, and kept hurting for a week.
Those memorable hits are a concern, but it’s also the regular subconcussive knocks, ones that don’t reach the level of overt symptoms, that neurologists worry about.
It’s not just concussions
Stella Legarda is a practicing pediatric neurologist and testified in support of the bill. When kids get hit on the head, or “get their bell rung,” she said they’ll often brush it off.
“They go back to play and if they keep ringing their bell and ringing their bell constantly that’s going to, over time, accumulate,” she told NPR.
Legarda said in the brain, nerve cells are taking that wear and tear, and not having time to heal.
“It’s like your cables to your computer are all frayed and broken,” she said. “The computer still works, you just have to kind of put [the cables] together. But over time you’re going to need a new computer.”
In some people it also begins a ripple effect, over the years causing tau proteins in the brain to build up, form clumps, and interfere with brain functioning. This is a sign of CTE.
It’s a rare and incurable disease found in people who have played contact sports and been in military combat. It’s only diagnosable in death.
CTE has also been found in the brains of people who’ve only played in amateur leagues, showing athletes don’t have to go pro to incur significant damage.
The evidence is mounting that the younger players start, the worse off they may be.
Legarda said people may only notice behavioral changes, like depression, impulsivity, and mood swings, years later.
“That’s probably also the reason why parents think it’s okay,” she said. “These changes happen after the kids grow up and leave home.”
A changing landscape
An analysis by The Washington Post found participation in tackle has dropped, especially in wealthier and more liberal areas. At the same time, participation in flag football has grown. The NFL has poured money into NFL Flag, and they say participation has risen by 38 percent for kids between 6 and 12 since 2015.
In California, legislators worked alongside the California Youth Football Alliance in 2019 to put forward The California Youth Football Act, which increased training requirements for coaches, limited the time kids could tackle in practice, and raised equipment standards. That bill went into effect in Jan. 2021.
McCarty said despite the changes, he remains concerned about the dangers tackle football poses for children.
“There’s no safe blow to the head for a six, seven, eight-year-old,” he said.
But for now, America’s reckoning with tackle football will stay in the realm of parental decision-making, and the kids at Tahoe Park will keep practicing, getting ready for next season.