Protecting kids from brain damage matters more than football

Youth football teams in Solon, Ohio, play Rookie Tackle, a small-sided version of the sport piloted by USA Football in 2017. Part of USA Football's mission is to make the game safer and more popular for youngsters.
Youth football teams in Solon, Ohio, play Rookie Tackle, a small-sided version of the sport piloted by USA Football in 2017. Part of USA Football's mission is to make the game safer and more popular for youngsters. USA Football

Right now, one of the biggest controversies in football is playing out not on the field, but in the California Legislature, and it involves the youngest of athletes.

A bill proposed in the state Assembly would prohibit kids under 12 from playing organized tackle football. The proposal aims to prevent children from sustaining the repetitive hits that can lead to serious brain injuries, including the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) that’s been the focus of so much concern in the NFL.

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Hours after California legislators Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, and Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, D-San Diego, unveiled a plan to outlaw tackle football until high school, angry coaches, parents and former players began mobilizing to protect America’s fa

Proponents of the Safe Youth Football Act say young athletes who wait until high school to play tackle football have a better chance of avoiding the depression, memory loss and dementia that come with CTE.

While there have been advances in the recognition and treatment of concussions, that's not the only concern; it's also the cumulative impact of smaller hits that has doctors worried.

That's a sobering warning. If tackle football is inherently dangerous for young children — and many doctors say that it is — that’s a matter of public health and the Legislature should intervene.

If not a permanent ban, we at least need a time-out for further research, because no amount of “my kid, my choice” rhetoric is going to protect children from permanent brain damage.

Neither is reliance on tradition. It’s true youth football has been around a long time, but that doesn’t prove it’s safe. Many things that were once considered perfectly OK are now recognized as extremely dangerous. Even drinking and driving was once considered no big deal. Now we know better.

Instead of taking chances with children's health, we believe we need to listen to doctors on this one. While there are some doctors who don't have a problem with kids playing tackle football, what we find most telling is that many medical professionals don’t allow their own children to play football.

Consider this from a Harvard-educated physician who polled his former classmates on whether they would allow their children to play football:

“In a landslide, they said no,” Dr. Paul Sax wrote in a commentary published on the website CommonHealth.

Locally, the Safe Football Act is being slammed by football parents and youth organizations, including Central Coast Youth Football. The organization has several links to the #SAVEYOUTHFOOTBALL campaign on its Facebook page.

Proponents stress the benefits of the sport — it teaches discipline and sportsmanship, keeps kids in shape and out of trouble — and they say kids could actually be a greater risk if they don't play youth football. "Keeping kids away from the game will make it only more dangerous; teaching it right will improve safety," Ripon High Football Coach Chris Musseman told the Modesto Bee.

Football families also argue that government has no business telling them how to raise their kids.

Yet government is constantly telling us how to raise our kids, from requiring us to strap them into car seats when they’re babies to mandating that we provide them with an education all the way through their teenage years.

Some see this as government meddling; we view it as government doing its job to protect vulnerable children.

If there were precautions that could make youth football safe, then we agree government should stay out of it. But we're not there yet, so why take the risk?

There are plenty of other team sports kids can play — soccer, flag football, basketball, baseball, roller hockey — and there are individual sports like swimming, running, golf and tennis.

If kids are only interested in football, they can learn the fundamentals of the game by playing flag football in childhood, and make the switch to tackle football in junior high or high school.

That sounds like a reasonable compromise that would save youth football, while still protecting kids.

If it takes a state law to get us there, The Tribune Editorial Board supports it.