For the second practice day of the 2014 season, young football players at Sacramento Charter High School stuck to the fundamentals.
Dressed in shorts and T-shirts – no pads yet – they practiced running routes and blocking, thuds and grunts audible on the sideline as bodies met soft pads held up by other players. Head Coach Paul Doherty moved among them, correcting footwork and offering advice.
“You gotta make the block that makes sense,” Doherty repeatedly told his players.
As Doherty and his coaching staff prepare their players to hit opposing ball carriers, they’re anticipating some new, statewide restrictions. A bill signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown earlier this summer will limit high school teams to two full-contact practices a week during the 2015 season and after.
California’s action points to a sea change in how America perceives its most popular sport. As the perils of football have become undeniable, highlighted by mounting evidence of severe damage to the brains of professional and college athletes, youth football programs are scrambling to adjust.
That the most populous state in the nation has imposed broad controls on youth football illustrates how widely concerns about potentially debilitating head injuries have penetrated the public consciousness. It has sharpened parental fears about signing kids up for a sport distinguished by its speed and violence.
“In 2013 there was a lot of focus on the concussion issue – Junior Seau of the Chargers committed suicide, there’s issues of how his football career played into that,” said Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, who sponsored Assembly Bill 2127.
In the aftermath of Seau’s death, Cooley said, “parents would volunteer they’ve got a new baby boy, and it’s like, ‘I hope he doesn’t want to play football.’ ”
It’s not just the California Legislature. Sports organizations have changed their rules, reflecting heightened awareness of football’s hazards.
Pop Warner, the iconic youth football league, announced in 2012 that contact drills could account for only one-third of practices. Football-fevered Texas limits high school teams to 90 minutes of full-contact practice a week. And the California Interscholastic Federation, which oversees school sports, backed Cooley’s bill.
“Inherently, coaches want to keep kids safe,” said Roger Blake, executive director of the California Interscholastic Federation. “But they also want to win the game. Part of the problem and challenge we have is to constantly remind coaches, you’re not going to win the game if your players can’t perform.”
Efforts to reform football practices trail questions about how severe the risks are and how safe it is possible to make a game founded on toughness. Advocates acknowledge that, short of banning the sport, some level of risk will remain.
“We have to recognize that we don’t know a clear way to completely stop this from happening,” said Kris Calvin, chief executive officer of California’s branch of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “It’s less being driven by a certainty that reducing full contact practices will help. It is more that at this point because the long-term and negative effects are so great.”
Measures to limit risk cannot change the fact that football is an aggressive, uncompromisingly physical sport, Cooley said. But he hopes his bill will offer conflicted parents some peace of mind.
“Parents will need to be attentive to their child nonetheless,” Cooley said. “Football is a hard game, so it doesn’t change that dynamic.”
Not everyone in the Legislature agreed with Cooley’s approach. Dissenting lawmakers argued the bill would disadvantage young athletes. Others questioned letting state policy trump the wisdom of coaches.
“I want to make sure California students have the opportunity to compete at the highest level, so I would defer to coaches who are experts in their sports to determine what that requires,” said Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank, who voted against the bill. “I believe in many ways the state’s involvement says our society has gotten soft, and we need to toughen up a little.”
That kind of disagreement about how to protect athletes speaks to the uncertainty that has engulfed football, from youth sports to the NFL.
More and more, however, the science supports those who are urging changes.
A dominant linebacker, Seau was one in a procession of fallen athletes whose brains showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disorder doctors link to repeated concussive hits. Rising awareness of CTE has prompted a wrenching debate about football’s future.
“What we do know is high levels of exposure to contact and collision sports is associated with chronic cognitive impairment while people are still alive,” including things like diminished memory and reactions, said Dr. Christopher Giza, a professor of pediatrics and neurosurgery at UCLA.
Potentially life-altering consequences of head injures are not restricted to professionals. An Institute of Medicine study, funded by the National Football League, found that high school football players are nearly twice as likely to suffer concussions as college athletes. Doctors warn that growing brains could be more vulnerable.
“Younger kids – if you consider a high school kid younger than collegiate or professional – do seem to take longer to get better from concussions,” Giza said.
Below the level of concussions are sub-concussive hits that may carry consequences as they accumulate. Although the science there is not settled, backers of Cooley’s bill such as the Brain Injury Association of California have warned of the less obvious repercussions of young players slamming into each other repeatedly. The effects of head injuries are always recognized.
“We’re looking at fathers who maybe played the game in their day and they say ‘well, I had all these concussions and I’m fine,’ but they may not be reporting their symptoms, they may have symptoms that they believe is their personality – anger easily, forgetfulness, headaches,” said Paula Daoutis, executive director of the association. “Often symptoms don’t present themselves until weeks, months, years later.”
Public awareness of the risks have slowly caught up to the science, Giza said. He noted that in his youth, “if you weren’t knocked out, nothing happened.” Doctors and coaches exposed to mandatory training now know that only in a small number of concussions – less than 10 percent, Giza said – do players lose consciousness.
“Even 10, 15 years ago someone in charge of whether someone should go back into play would wait 10 or 15 minutes, see they didn’t lose consciousness and say they’re OK,” Calvin said. “The long-term effects now have been documented as being much more serious.”
Perhaps more crucial than limiting contact is instructing coaches on how to recognize concussions and having stringent return-to-play protocols, Calvin said. California’s new law requires a minimum seven-day respite for concussed players, who can take the field again only after a physician signs off.
Doherty, the Sacramento Charter High School head coach, said his staff has always been deliberate about reactivating players who have absorbed head injuries. He praised efforts to better instruct coaches on recognizing warning signs.
“I think it just comes back to a matter of education,” Doherty said.
Looking ahead to future seasons, Doherty downplayed the consequences of limiting tackle practices. He noted that his team plays a less physical style than some competitors and argued that tackling is just one in a wide range of skills a successful team must master.
“I think if it’s a situation where coaches are in pads too much and tackling too much, that’s a head coach problem,” Doherty said. “That’s a coach who doesn’t know how to coach.”
One of Doherty’s defensive coaches also sounded unfazed. “We don’t really need that much tackle time,” said Andre Butler, the linebackers coach. “It’s more about us being in the right place in the right time so you can make the play.”
Standing on the sideline, Troy Dangerfield Sr. reflected on how the sport has evolved since his playing days. Dangerfield has coached youth football and was watching his son run drills. Tossing a football from hand to hand, he talked about how much more conscious coaches have become of players’ welfare, from the risk of concussions to their nutrition to how they train.
“When the whistle’s blown you stop, you go through the motions. But with ours we just ran right through the guy – that was a good tackle,” Dangerfield said. “It was way tougher than what it is now.”