It’s Time to Ban Tackling in Youth Football

by John Boruk

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Is it time to tackle the issue of banning tackle football to protect our youth?

New York State legislators are considering a ban on tackle football for children aged 12 and under.

Researchers at the VA Boston Health Care System and the Boston University School of Medicine conducted research on 211 football players who were diagnosed with CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) after death began experiencing the early onset of cognitive, behavior, and mood symptoms by an average of 13 years.

This is a staggering number in the defense of banning tackling in youth football. 

State lawmakers in New York heard testimony Tuesday from 42-year-old T.J. Abraham who was forced to stop practicing medicine as the result of his failing memory. Abraham admitted to losing his keys, his wallet and even forgetting the route he took on his drive home. 

Doctors are pinning Abraham’s declining neurological condition on the effects of playing youth football that started during elementary school. 

“Youth exposure to repetitive head impacts in tackle football may reduce one’s resiliency to brain diseases later in life, including, but not limited to CTE,” said corresponding author Ann McKee, MD, chief of Neuropathology at Boston VA Healthcare System, and Director of BU’s CTE Center. “It makes common sense that children, whose brains are rapidly developing, should not be hitting their heads hundreds of times per season.”

The New York Legislature is expected to take up the measure in January, but the battle to ban youth tackle football is already underway in Massachusetts with the introduction of Massachusetts House Bill H.2007 – a “No Hits” bill to ban tackling until 8th grade.

“Football is to CTE what smoking is to lung cancer. The more you do it, the longer you do it, the greater your risk,” Chris Nowinski of the Concussion Legacy Foundation explained to the Joint Committee on Public Health at the State House.

One of those who testified earlier this month at the Massachusetts State House was Jessica Stanley, whose 14-year-son committed suicide after sustaining over 20 concussions dating back to when he first started playing tackle football at the age of 6.

While you can question why any family would allow their child to continue to play tackle football even after sustaining as many as five to ten concussions, ultimately the debate comes down to a kid’s potential exposure to brain disease, and can it be completely prevented.

Of course there’s plenty of opposition to Massachusetts House Bill H.2007. 

Pop Warner’s Jon Butler said the youth football organization has taken precautionary measures to make the game safer: including eliminating kickoffs, restricting contact during practice and banning full-speed head-on tackling drills.

“Banning youth tackle football is a tremendous overreach into the rights of parents to allow their children to play a game,” Paul Dauderis of the Massachusetts Youth Football Alliance told lawmakers.

So let’s make sense of all of this.

You can make the game of tackle football safer, but no matter how good technology has evolved with helmets and pads or how you refine rules and practice techniques, the game will never be concussion proof.

Look at the evolution of automobiles.

Cars are also safer, much safer, just over the past 50 years. Automakers have engineered ways to build a better, more reinforced chassis equipped with three-point seat belts, air bags and other technological advances. None of which can guarantee you won’t sustain serious injury or even die in a car crash.

No matter how many safety enhancements are installed and utilized while driving, there’s no control of all the possible variables that go into a collision. There’s the rate of speed, the point of contact, the direction of an oncoming car, road conditions, etc. 

Same can be said regarding brain injuries suffered through playing contact sports like football. Youth football associations can take all of the preventative measures to make the game safer, but they will never be able to claim it’s completely safe and concussion-free because they can’t control each player’s head and body movements throughout the course of a game.

“Unfortunately those big helmets, even the newest and biggest, cannot protect the brain from moving and stretching rapidly inside the skull with each of those hits,” said Robert Stern of BU’s CTE Center.

A bigger question posed is why can’t Pop Warner football and USA Football teach the important crucial aspects of the game without implementing tackling at such an early age. 

By comparison USA Hockey, youth hockey’s sanctioning body, has raised the age in which players can legally check an opponent. Checking in hockey is can’t start until at the age of 13, and even then, there’s still physical play at an early age with the potential of sustaining brain injuries.

Five years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics even recommended the sport of hockey push back body checking until the age of 15. Their claim is that boys who play ice hockey in leagues that allow body checking are two to three times more the likely to suffer serious injuries and concussions compared to boys in non-checking programs.

Regardless of the inherent risks, no is saying we should remove cars off the road, and no one is arguing that youth football should be banned altogether.

But why needlessly expose children’s brains to long-term damage that could have severe repercussions later in life.