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Scoring a safety

SPORTS | California pauses an effort to ban youth tackle football

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Scoring a safety
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California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Jan. 16 effectively sacked a bill that many parents in his state hated.

The legislation, introduced by lawmakers in the California Assembly earlier in January, would have prohibited youth sports organizations and leagues from offering tackle football to children under age 10 starting in 2027 and under age 12 beginning in 2029. But California parents mounted a vocal opposition.

After the Assembly committee tasked with regulating California sports voted 5-2 to send the bill to the Assembly’s full chamber, Newsom vowed to veto it. That prompted Assemblymember Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), the bill’s sponsor, to pull the proposal.

No state has yet banned tackle football for children. However, ­legislators in not just California but Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Maryland have tried to do so. Their goal is to prevent brain injuries in youth, but many ­parents believe the benefits of tackle football outweigh the risks, providing structure, discipline, and an outlet for aggression they feel will benefit their children—boys in particular.

In California, Newsom’s opposition to the bill may seem surprising, as he isn’t exactly hailed for being a champion of parents’ rights: The ­governor declared in a statement that while he is “deeply concerned about the health and safety of our young athletes,” he also wants to ensure that “parents have the freedom to decide which sports are most appropriate for their children.” It is possible Newsom’s position is aimed at maintaining Democratic support among minority families who value the opportunities football offers.

Concerns about the safety of youth football center on the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which kills nerve endings in brain cells: Some scientists believe that not only concussions, but repeated, less severe blows to the head following high-speed collisions with opponents can adversely affect football players’ cognitive abilities, mood, and behaviors later in life. Studies of some former NFL players who have committed suicide—such as Dave Duerson, Junior Seau, and Aaron Hernandez—showed those players had high rates of CTE.

A 2016 study published in Radiology showed that a single ­season of tackle football can affect the brains of players as young as 8. However, research in JAMA Network Open in 2021 didn’t find a link between youth football and later cognitive and behavioral problems. Some experts point to the other health benefits of organized sports, like exercise.

Since 2021, California law has required tackle football coaches to complete concussion and head-injury training annually. But it’s possible the state’s legislators may try again to stop young children from playing tackle football. McCarty has tried to pass a ban since 2018.

Evan Mata’u is the president of the Milpitas Knights, a youth football program serving a small city in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s also the father of six sons ranging in age from 6 to 30. All of them have played or are currently suiting up for the Knights, who have sent roughly 20 “AlumKnights” to NCAA Division I colleges or the NFL, including current Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive lineman Vita Vea.

While Mata’u understands concerns about the injury risks inherent in football, he believes such concerns are overblown—especially since younger kids don’t run as fast, and thus don’t hit each other as hard when they collide, as players in high school, college, or the pros do.

“Soccer has a high rate of concussions, too,” Mata’u said. “They [youth football’s detractors] don’t put that out there.”

Ray Hacke

Ray is a sports correspondent for WORLD who has covered sports professionally for three decades. He is also a licensed attorney who lives in Keizer, Ore., with his wife Pauline and daughter Ava.



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