Less than a month after the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl, a group of Massachusetts lawmakers has proposed a bill that would ban organized youth tackle football until after seventh grade.
The bill, which moved to the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health this week, follows attempts by legislators in five other states who have tried — but failed — to pass similar measures to protect growing brains from traumatic injury.
The bipartisan bill, known as No Hits, would impose financial penalties for any school league or other entity that does not comply.
“There is significant science detailing repetitive head impacts have long-term neurological consequences, especially when they occur during brain development,” one of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Paul A. Schmid III of Massachusetts, a Democrat, said in a statement.
Although some medical professionals and former NFL players have signaled their support for the measure and public opinion could buoy its prospects, the bill is already facing headwinds.
Two representatives who initially supported the measure have withdrawn their names from the bill, and a few other legislators said they would not support it.
“Should we ban youth soccer too? Or youth hockey?” asked Rep. David Nangle, a Democrat who opposes the bill. “When do we stop legislating into areas that we shouldn’t be?”
A spokeswoman for USA Football, which governs youth football, said in a statement that the organization believes that decisions on allowing children to play football are “best left to parents.” To that end, she said, it has created a set of guidelines developed by leaders in athlete development and football.
The executive director of Pop Warner, Jon Butler, said in a statement that it has worked to improve player safety by eliminating the three-point stance and removing kickoffs for younger athletes. “Banning football is not the answer, but we do agree that we should continue our efforts to make the game safer for our kids,” he said.
Studies by Boston University and other research centers have shown that children who began playing tackle football before the age of 12 were at greater risk for cognitive, mood and behavioral issues later in life, as well as diseases like chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated hits to the head.
But there has been opposition to those findings from the NFL and even well-intentioned parents, said Michael Kaplen, a lawyer who teaches a legal course on traumatic brain injury and tracks legislation governing youth tackle football. Kaplen said that there is no such thing as safer tackling, and that a youth league promoting safer tackling is similar to big tobacco companies offering low-nicotine cigarettes.
“People don’t understand that even a minor blow to the head has risks,” he said. “It may take years for these problems to become unmasked.” Steve Dembowski, 49, an executive board member of the Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Association, said parents should be able to make choices for their children, rather than the state.
“Considering that kids at that age get concussions playing soccer and baseball and any other sport where they can fall and hit their head on the ground,” he said, “it seems like an overstep of authority.”
Damon Stanton, 43, has two sons who play football, and he coaches youth football in Hanson, Massachusetts, about 25 miles south of Boston.
“I understand the concern,” he said, citing the Boston University study. But he said more attention should be paid to the work that is being done to make the sport safer since the “knuckle-dragging days” when “you would hit hit hit, and run until you were puking” during practice.
He said his team had invested in new equipment, like foam tires that minimize player contact during practices, and introduced shoulder-tackling techniques developed by USA Football.
Stanton acknowledged that he may not be as influential as the Patriots’ head coach, Bill Belichick, adding that he is not “a political guy.”
“But,” he said, “I’ll definitely be calling my rep to let him know how I feel.”
In recent years, tackle football has lost some of its luster among middle and high schoolers, and their parents. In 2017, about 2.4 million athletes from ages 6 to 17 regularly played the sport, down slightly from the year before, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Rugby is gaining popularity because its tackling techniques appear less risky, which increasingly appeals to coaches leery of concussions.
In parts of the country there have been some moves to further address player safety for tackle football at the high school level. This month the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association adopted new guidelines to sharply reduce the amount of contact allowed during high school practices.
But several efforts last year to pass statewide legislation governing youth leagues were quashed by grass-roots movements led by parents and coaches.
When Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle of New Jersey proposed banning tackle football for children under 12, parents, coaches and players threatened to vote her out of office, she said in an email.
That bill is currently in limbo.
“Unfortunately, the old boys’ club of politics and football go hand in hand,” said Huttle, a Democrat. “This bill has and will continue to receive pushback because it goes against the American grain.”
A similar bill in New York failed, and California’s “Safe Football Act” was pulled before a committee vote. The Dave Duerson Act, named after a Chicago Bears player who killed himself at age 50, did not make it past the Illinois Legislature. And Maryland’s proposal, which also would have prohibited heading in soccer, was killed in committee.
These efforts, futile as they sometimes prove to be, still have a positive effect, supporters say.
“I really did not expect it to pass,” said Delegate Terri Hill, the Democratic legislator who sponsored Maryland’s bill. “But I think it’s a conversation we have to have,” she said, “and I don’t think the conversation is over.”
Rep. Bradley H. Jones, a Republican who is a sponsor of the Massachusetts bill, echoed Hill.
“Some football programs have already made changes indicating that there is at least some recognition of this problem,” he said. “If this bill does nothing else, I am hopeful that it starts a dialogue that will lead to the implementation of best practices and standards across the board to protect kids from long-term brain injuries.”