Further Review

Steve Hummer's Further Review blog offers comments, asides and quick hits on the state of sports

Is it really time for government to tackle youth football?


Because, I guess, they love their children more in the north and west, various initiatives to ban youth tackle football have been cropping up here and there.

Well, there, actually.

Not here so much. Not in the south, where our infants don’t crawl so much as they assume a premature four-point stance.

I overstate, of course. But the geography of this issue is interesting. Bills to prohibit tackle football for pre-high-school aged children – taking the pop out of Pop Warner, as one periodical put it – have arisen in Illinois, Maryland, New York and California. I wonder just how far that kind of proposed legislation would fly here in the solid purple states – as in the color of a first full-contact bruise – of the football-centric south? 

In California, for instance, they will consider this spring the “Safe Youth Football Act,” meant to eliminate tackle football for anyone not yet high school-aged in favor of non-contact flag football.

“We have an obligation to protect children from dangerous, long-term injuries resulting from tackle football, especially brain trauma,” California assemblyman Kevin McCarty announced.

A couple quick thoughts:

It’s not likely a pee-wee is going to hit with the same velocity and cruel intent as Vontaze Burfict. But is there a real need to subject kids under 14 to the harsher truths of football when so many of the game’s fundamentals can be passed along in the flag version? A version of the game, by the way, the NFL itself promotes.

The athletic aptitude will show up whatever the style of the game. The appetite for the contact, if it exists, will be there waiting for high school-level competition. There’s time enough to build in that last key component and to teach proper tackling technique. 

A 2017 Boston University study shed a most troubling light on youth tackle football, per this excerpt from the university: 

“A new study has found an association between participation in youth tackle football before age 12 and impaired mood and behavior later in life.

“Researchers from BU’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) Center studied 214 former American football players, including 43 who played only through high school and 103 who played only through college. The average age of the former players at the time of the study was 51. Participants received telephone-administered cognitive tests and completed online measures of depression, behavioral regulation, apathy and executive functioning (initiating activity, problem-solving, planning and organization). Results from former players who started playing tackle football before the age of 12 were compared against those of participants who started playing at age 12 or later.

“The study showed that participation in youth football before age 12 increased the risk of problems with behavioral regulation, apathy and executive functioning by two-fold and increased the risk of clinically elevated depression scores by three-fold. The increased risk was independent of the total number of years the participants played football, the number of concussions they reported, or whether they played through high school, college or professionally. The researchers chose the cutoff of age 12 because the brain undergoes a key period of development and maturation between the years 10-12 in males. They examined other age cutoffs as well, though the age 12 cutoff led to the most robust findings. In addition, even when a specific age cutoff was not used, younger age of first exposure to football was associated with worse clinical function.”

Doesn’t that make you want to sign Junior up for a little slobber-knocking?

At the same time, it seems that letting the government make this decision is an over-reach. In general, the less parenting by legislation, the better.

There are too many excuses for a benevolent state to wind another layer of bubble wrap around someone else’s child. Today it’s tackle football. Tomorrow there’s a law against youth cheerleading. The soccer header is a public menace. And the skateboard an instrument of abuse. 

The free market of information and ideas is more than enough to guide parents to the right decision for their own children (my son grew up quite healthy and strong without the benefit of a single awkward, pre-pubescent power sweep, but that was just my choice).  

Because we all love our kids equally and ultimately will try to do what is best for them. If youth tackle football is to go away, it will die on its own, of natural causes.

Your thoughts?  


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About the Author

Steve Hummer writes sports features for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He covers a wide range of sports and topics.