Shawn Hubler

If only California’s fight over youth tackle football were really about football

Families protest a proposed ban on youth tackle football for children under age 12, on April 22, 2018, in Sacramento. AB 2018 goes to an Assembly committee on May 1.
Families protest a proposed ban on youth tackle football for children under age 12, on April 22, 2018, in Sacramento. AB 2018 goes to an Assembly committee on May 1. Sacramento Bee

Growing up in Vacaville, Stephanie Twilley’s brothers played tackle football in high school, and for the past three years, her sons Christian and Lincoln have played, too.

Christian (“like the religion”) is 14. Lincoln (“like the president”) is 10. Neither is big for his age, though Christian has sprouted some peach-fuzz on his pale upper lip and appears to be in the throes of a growth spurt.

Last Sunday, the family hollered and clapped outside the Capitol in their orange and white Woodland Junior Wolves jerseys with a crowd of about 150 parents and kids, shouting down, successfully as it turned out, California’s effort to outlaw youth tackle football.

“Sure, you always have concerns,” said Stephanie, a state worker and mother of six, acknowledging the now widely reported risks of lifelong brain trauma from high-impact youth sports and the grim epidemic of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, among NFL players.

“But they can get hurt playing soccer. They can get hurt tripping and falling.” Also, she said, football was keeping them away from video games. And teaching them teamwork. And their team was like a family. And “this is about letting parents make the decision.”

 
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And, she noted – as Lincoln went long on the Capitol lawn and snagged a ball mid-air, shouting in triumph – “they love it.”

What do they love?

“You can hit people,” laughed Christian as his mother winced, blond hair falling into his eyes, shouting over the loudspeaker in a voice that was not quite a boy’s and not quite a man’s either. “If you both hit each other and they fall down, you know that you’re the superior one.”

Oh, football. Like Stephanie Twilley, I grew up with it. In my childhood home, an hour from Penn State, it was not just a sport, it was a way of life.

“You can hit people,” was almost verbatim what the now-famous Penn State linebacker Matt Millen told me in the 1970s, when I asked him what he liked about his sport in a college sociology class where we were seated next to each other.

But it wasn’t just that. Football was part of being right with the world, part of what seemed then to be a natural order. Something people took for granted, like respect for presidents and religion.

To this day, I cannot experience September without picturing my kid brothers out in the yard as little boys, the long arc of the ball, the white of the laces, the smell of the leaves, their high voices narrating their own play-by-play, the crowd going wild in their imaginations.

My brothers played football for years, dreaming the dreams all little boys in Pennsylvania coal and steel country dreamed – of Joe Paterno. They were very good, but not good enough to make the teams in college, and I will never know whether the hits they made and endured had anything to do with the crippling depression that found both in adulthood.

My youngest brother died at 46 the weekend before my first Thanksgiving in Sacramento. He left behind a little boy who, stricken with yearning, threw himself into youth football, the sport that made his father cheer the hardest for him. Now my sister-in-law worries constantly that my nephew will get hurt, and hoping to improve his odds, has signed him up for private lessons from a former professional kicker. She knows the risks, too – he is slight – but it feels wrong to her to deny him the chance to play.

What can you say? The medical arguments are compelling, enough that much of urban and suburban America has moved on to other passions. And yet a whole lot of families still can’t quit the sport, or separate it from what they think it still ought to stand for.

“Research shows that 9- to 11-year-old youth tackle football players subject themselves to an average of 251 significant hits per season,” notes the fact sheet for Assembly Bill 2108, the fairly modest “Safe Youth Football Act” that Assemblymembers Kevin McCarty and Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher had to pull from consideration on Friday.

“These increased hits for youth under the age of 12,” it continues, “can interrupt the brain development and peak cerebral blood flow.”

AB 2108 would have outlawed organized tackle football before that age, citing a 2017 Boston University study that found the odds of lifelong brain damage decrease by 50 percent if kids just wait to play until after adolescence.

The Concussion Legacy Foundation, which researches CTE, “strongly recommends” making kids wait until age 14 before playing tackle football. McCarty said he and Gonzalez Fletcher originally elected to make 14 the threshold, but high school coaches persuaded them to relent so that middle school kids could have time to learn to tackle properly and more safely absorb hits in high school.

That was a disappointment, he added, to Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist of “Concussion” fame who, several years ago, planted the idea of a ban with state lawmakers.

Omalu, whose research revealed the stunning extent of CTE in professional football, has said parents need to start asking themselves what they love more – their children or football. He also has likened youth football to child abuse, saying that “there is no such thing as a safe blow to the head.”

Omalu is right. There shouldn’t even be a debate about an activity in which each child gets battered 251 times over a three-and-a-half-month season. And if this were really about sports injuries or love, this conversation would be done and parents would be cheering AB 2108.

But this conversation isn’t really about football. It’s about moving the goal posts. It’s about what happens when good people keep finding themselves outmatched by new rules and better information, when too much that they thought was right turns out to be wrong, even if their errors are hurtful.

It’s about the hits that just keep coming for Americans who were raised with a certain set of values and expectations, from politics to culture, only to have the game yanked out from under them over and over like Charlie Brown’s football. Even if you understood, who wouldn’t protest?

“The goal is to end football completely in this country,” Sacramento lobbyist Todd Bloomstine raged to the crowd at the rally last Sunday.

Of course, that isn’t the goal. But even if it were, kids would find other ways to bond and avoid video games and find their place in the natural order. We parents, on the other hand, we’re more fragile. Change comes, and all we know is to hold that line, protect our blind side, try not to fall down. Stay superior.

Shawn Hubler: 916-321-1646, @ShawnHubler

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