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California proposal to ban youth tackle football clears first legislative hurdle

By ADAM BEAM and OLGA R. RODRIGUEZ
Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California lawmakers who want to ban tackle football for kids under 12 to reduce brain injuries gained ground Wednesday in the Legislature but still face a very long field and a clock that is ticking.

Though it was a school day, dozens of children wearing football jerseys and their parents crowded into the hearing room and watched as the Assembly committee that regulates sports voted 5-2 to send the bill to the full chamber.

The full Assembly has only until the end of January to approve it. If they do, it goes to the Senate and then Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Heightened concern over concussions and the growing popularity of flag football are driving the effort to impose the ban, which opponents say would take away the ability for parents to decide their children’s activities, put California youth players behind those in other states and cut off some children from a source of exercise and an important after-school activity.

But advocates say the bill will protect kids from the risk of brain damage, which studies have shown increases the longer a person plays tackle football. And they note children can still enjoy the sport through flag football, which is becoming more popular and even has support from the NFL.

No state has banned tackle football for kids despite some attempts. State Assemblymember Kevin McCarty introduced a similar bill in 2018 that failed to pass. Other proposals in New York and Illinois also failed to pass.

The debate comes as participation in high school tackle football has been declining in California. Participation dropped more than 18% from 2015 to 2022, falling from a high of 103,725 players to 84,626 players, according to the California Interscholastic Federation’s participation survey. Participation then increased by 5% in 2023, up to 89,178 players.

But Ashley Bertram, a mother of three boys, ages 14, 12 and 7, said her boys have played both sports and that in her experience children get hurt more while playing flag football because the players don’t wear protective gear.

“Flag football is still a contact sport,” Bertram said. “If you think that just because a 7-year-old boy is running up to take a flag, that they’re not ramming into each other to do that, you’re out of your mind! We’re talking about boys!”

Bertram, who attended the hearing with her 7-year-old son, Bruce, said the bill is more about infringing on parental rights than football.

“In the state of California, I get to choose whether my child lives or dies in my womb. But I can’t decide what sport he plays?” she asked.

But several lawmakers who back the legislation say flag football is a safer option for kids.

“Football and organizational sports in general are clearly proven ways to keep kids out of trouble,” said Assemblymember Mike Gipson, chair of the state assembly’s committee in charge of regulating sports in California. “This bill is not taking away that ability, it is simply saying that we’re going to move from tackle football to flag football and we can still have the same learning experiences.”

McCarty told the committee that, if approved, the measure would set rules to protect the brains of the youngest children and join measures that already regulate other contact sports in the state.

“Just like we have (rules) for soccer that you can’t head before a certain age in California, and in hockey that you can’t check before a certain age, (the bill) says to our youngest kids, ‘You can play flag football under 12 and over 12 you start having contact.'”

If passed, the ban would be gradually phased in, prohibiting children under 6 starting in 2025, under 10 in 2027 and those under 12 in 2029. That provision wasn’t part of last year’s bill and was added Wednesday, perhaps making the bill more palatable to some lawmakers.

Flag football has been gaining popularity nationwide, especially for girls. The sport has provided scholarship opportunities for female players, with around two dozen NAIA schools fielding women’s teams in 2023 and more schools planning to join in upcoming seasons.

The NFL has promoted flag football, helping it to become an Olympic sport that will be included in the LA Games in 2028. The league has set up camps, clinics, a circuit and even exhibitions through its NFL FLAG program, which serves kids between the ages of 4 and 17.

According to research by USA Football, more than 1 million kids between the ages of 6 and 12 played the sport in 2022.

Research has shown tackle football causes brain damage, and the risk increases the longer people play football, said Chris Nowinski, CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation and former Harvard football player and WWE professional wrestler. It can cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which kills nerve cells in the brain.

“I don’t have a problem with NFL players, who are adults and understand the risk and are compensated, risking CTE,” Nowinski said. “I can’t imagine a world in which we have children, who don’t understand the risk, doing this for fun (and) taking the same risk with their brain.”

California law already bans full-contact practices for high school and youth football teams during the offseason and limits them to two practices per week during the preseason and regular season. A law that took effect in 2021 also requires youth football officials to complete concussion and head injury education in addition to other safeguards.

Ron White, president of the California Youth Football Alliance, said the measure is misguided and discriminatory because if passed, it will greatly impact underserved communities. White also said the science on CTE is constantly evolving.

“There is not medical consensus in this area, far from it,” White said. “So, when you’re informing public policy, we believe that the (legislative) body should really take that into consideration and know there’s competing science and work with the people, not against them.”

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Rodriguez reported from San Francisco. Associated Press journalists Pat Graham in Denver and Terry Chea in Sacramento contributed to this report.

Article Topic Follows: ap-california-news

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