Tackle this: Flag football only until high school?
Friday, February 16, 2018
Two lawmakers in California recently announced their plan to introduce a state bill to ban youth tackle football before their freshmen year in high school as a way to reduce players' risk of head injuries. The Safe Youth Football Act, for consideration this spring, would ban 7,500 pre-freshmen players in the Golden State from taking part tackle football, according to Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) and Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego).
The lawmakers in part cite Dr. Bennet Omalu, an author and nationally recognized expert, who first discovered chronic traumatic chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in pro football players, drawing the ire of the National Football League.
"The research is clear — when children participate in high-impact, high-contact sports, there is a 100 percent risk of exposure to brain damage," according to Omalu. "Once you know the risk involved in something, what's the first thing you do? Protect children from it."
How would this youth sports bill affect high school football?
We turn to Mike Morris, the athletic director at Rio Linda High School in Sacramento County, and the school's head football coach for 23 years, for a sense of how the legislation would change the job of high school coaches if they had to teach skills such as basic tackling for the first time to incoming freshman.
"The vast majority of freshmen high school football players have not played youth football," Morris said. "Therefore, for these new players, football coaching would remain the same."
Nevertheless, it would create challenges. According to Thomas DeGeorge, a freshman football coach at Rio Linda High School and a former youth football coach, freshman football coaches operate under a tight time crunch to prepare players for the season.
"The bill would eliminate the freshman players who do have experience tackling in youth football," he said. "It makes a difference for coaches when they can refine football fundamentals in players with youth league experience."
How do football coaches see The Safe Youth Football Act affecting the health of players?
"I have not seen many injuries at the youth football level," Morris said. However, he knows the risk is there: "My two sons played youth football, and one suffered a concussion."
And banning youth football could lead to unintended results, according to DeGeorge. For instance, high school players might use poor fundamentals in skills such as tackling (holding their heads down instead of up)
"That would cause more, not less, head injuries in high school football," he said.
The California bill would require youth to play flag football, which eliminates tackling. Instead, players pull one or both flags from an opponent's waist area to end a play. As someone who played flag football until donning a helmet and pads for tackle football in my high school sophomore year, I know one thing: There is still contact in flag football.
How would ending youth tackle football change the look and feel of the high school sport?
"The ban would do more to damage the credibility of high school football," Morris said. "I do think that there should be a beginning age limit for youth football players of 10-12 years old."
DeGeorge sees a youth tackle football ban as lessening kids' aggressiveness and confidence on the gridiron. Currently in the Sacramento area, youth can begin to play tackle football in the 8 years old and under division.
"California would be the first state in the nation to set a minimum age requirement for youth tackle football," according to Assemblymembers Gonzalez Fletcher and McCarty. Similar bills to ban youth tackle football in California have legs in Illinois, Maryland and New York.
An online petition to preserve youth tackle football in the Golden State has more than 33,000 signatures.
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