Hours after two California legislators unveiled a plan to outlaw tackle football until high school, angry coaches, parents and former players began mobilizing to protect America’s favorite sport from a notoriously “nanny” state government.
They created a Twitter account, SaveCaliforniaFootball, and a matching hashtag. One coach set up a meeting with a Sacramento lobbyist to learn how to engage lawmakers on bills. An online petition opposing the bill collected more than 30,000 signatures in a little over three days.
“At what point do we just bubble wrap our kids?” said Jason Ingman of Natomas, a parent and youth coach who launched the petition. “It’s not a perfect world. We’re never going to take injury out of sports. We can’t just abandon it because we can’t be 100 percent safe.”
Mike Wagner, a Pop Warner official in Los Angeles and an organizer of the growing opposition campaign, described the legislation another way: “It’s completely un-American.”
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Sacramento Assemblyman Kevin McCarty hasn’t even formally introduced the bill yet.
“I knew we would strike a nerve,” McCarty said. “I knew it was a tough conversation.”
McCarty and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, both Democrats, announced their intent last week to craft legislation to establish a minimum age to play contact football, comparing their proposed government intervention in the sport to previous public health measures that mandated car seats and vaccines for children.
To McCarty, the science is clear: “Football in general has its risks and it’s especially dangerous to younger kids.”
McCarty cited a Boston University School of Medicine study released in September that found players who participated in tackle football before age 12 experienced more behavior and cognitive problems in life than players who started playing later.
The study showed those who participated before age 12 were twice as likely to have “problems with behavioral regulation, apathy and executive functioning” and three times as likely to experience “clinically-elevated depression scores.”
Approximately 53 percent of Americans believe tackle football is not safe for kids before high school, according to a poll of 1,000 adults released by the University of Massachusetts Lowell and the Washington Post last fall.
“All across the country and all across California you’re seeing more and more parents say, ‘Maybe it doesn’t make sense,’ ” McCarty said.
Some argue McCarty should leave the decision to parents.
Joe Cattolico, the varsity football coach for the Sheldon High School Huskies, hails from a family that didn’t take participation in tackle football lightly – his father would not allow him to play until ninth grade.
Now he’s Dad to two boys in elementary school who play flag football. “My oldest one is actually unhappy with me that I haven’t let him do it yet,” he said. The coach thinks seventh grade may be the appropriate time for his son, now a fifth grader.
“I think that the bill is a well-intentioned attempt to over-legislate and to take something that should be the choice of parents and take it away from them and put it in the hands of the government,” Cattolico said on the blacktop one day this week after school.
It’s a point reiterated by parents and coaches up and down the state.
Wagner, the executive commissioner of Southern California Conference Pop Warner, said he immediately received nearly two dozen emails from coaches and parents the day McCarty announced the bill. He pondered the best way to organize the opposition and contacted Chris Fore, a consultant and special-teams coordinator at Victor Valley College, for help.
Fore launched a Twitter account the next day. He met with a lobbyist on Tuesday to receive advice about strategy and speaking with lawmakers. Fore declined to name the lobbyist.
“We want to be careful to unify the many different youth football organizations, and have a clear mission, purpose and voice in this discussion,” Fore said. He’s setting up a press conference to voice concerns about the bill at a football clinic in Costa Mesa next week.
Youth football in California is spread across many organizations, from Pop Warner to regional leagues, which makes it difficult to determine how many children participate in the sport. The Sports and Fitness Industry Association estimates that 2.5 million children ages six to 17 play tackle football in the U.S.
Ingman said his 12-year-old son Kristian would have a void in his life without tackle football. Ingman, an assistant youth football coach for the Rocklin Junior Thunder 14-and-under team, said his son will finish his eighth-grade season later this year and would not be impacted by the bill.
“If this conversation were happening five years ago, that might be the last straw for me to leave this state,” Ingman said. “We have safe heroin sites, but kids can’t play football?”
Ingram said he heard about the attempt to ban tackle football on Facebook over the weekend. At 8 a.m. Saturday, he sat down at a computer and started crafting a change.org petition to gather online signatures in opposition of the bill. His goal is to reach 100,000 signatures.
Ingram and other opponents assert that the science isn’t conclusive.
Researchers at Boston University said the study McCarty cites added to “growing research suggesting that incurring repeated head impacts through tackle football before the age of 12 can lead to a greater risk for short- and long-term neurological consequences.” They also said more research is necessary before any recommendations on policy or rule changes can be made.
“At first glance, it’s ‘youth football causes brain damage,’ ” Wagner said. “That’s not the story. That’s not the truth of it and we wanted to make sure people were getting accurate information.”
Opponents argue that young kids are not capable of tackling each other with the same force as high school, college or NFL players.
Wagner said most of the studies are focused on professional football players who endured repeated hits over their entire football career. The vast majority of Pop Warner players will never play beyond high school, which he suggests should lessen their risk of brain injury.
At the same time, the studies are not capturing the changes in the sport over the last few years to reduce injury, opponents say.
A California law signed in 2014 limits middle and high school teams from holding more than two full-contact practices per week. It also prevents teams from running full-contract drills and scrimmages for more than 90 minutes in a single day. Athletes who suffer concussions must complete a return-to-play protocol for at least a week under the supervision or a licensed health care provider.
The state also requires teams to immediately remove a player suspected of suffering a head injury from the field for the rest of the day and bars them from returning until they receive written clearance from a doctor.
A growing concern about concussions and a drop in football participation have also resulted in voluntary rules changes and initiatives to make the sport safer. Programs like Heads Up Football, supported by the NFL, teach safer tackling and blocking procedures.
Nonetheless, Dr. Bennet Omalu, a local specialist nationally recognized for his research on brain injuries, says the bill doesn’t go far enough. He recommends banning football, ice hockey, mixed martial arts, boxing, rugby and wrestling until age 18.
“Knowing what we know today, if we continue to expose children to the risk of brain damage in violent types of sports, that is the medical definition of child endangerment,” Omalu said.
He pointed to a study published in October of 2016 that found “measurable brain changes in children after a single season of playing youth football, even without a concussion diagnosis.” McCarty said he introduced the bill after discussions with Omalu about the risks.
“If parents refuse to protect their children, then I think it is the duty of government to protect our most vulnerable aspect of society, children,” Omalu said. “This is a good start. Let’s fight another battle tomorrow. This is a step in the right direction.”