California lawmakers take step toward banning youth tackle football

The Washington Post

January 10, 2024

A proposed bill to ban tackle football for children under 12 passed through a committee of California’s State Assembly on Wednesday, sending the measure to a vote of the full membership and bringing the state a step closer to becoming the first in the United States to enact a minimum age requirement to play the sport.

The Assembly’s Committee on Arts, Entertainment, Sports and Tourism voted by a 5-2 margin in favor of advancing Assembly Bill 734 to a floor vote. The committee vote fell along party lines, with its five Democratic members, including Chair Mike A. Gipson, voting in favor and its two Republican members, including vice chair Greg Wallis, voting against.

“Kids only have one brain. They only have one life,” Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D), who sponsored the bill, said during Wednesday’s hearing, highlighting the scientific links between tackle football and the risk of brain injury. “And there is irreversible damage to kids’ brains [through tackle football] that is totally unnecessary. And you can wait [to play].”

The bill is expected to get a floor vote of the full, 80-member Assembly next week, and it would have to clear the 40-member Senate before reaching the desk of Gov. Gavin Newsom (D). In 2019, Newsom signed the California Youth Football Act, which mandated a long list of safety measures for youth and high school football in the state, including mandatory safety training for coaches, additional on-site medical personnel and strict limits on the frequency and duration of full-contact practices.

An amendment to AB734 approved by the committee Wednesday would be phased in should the bill pass, beginning with children under 6, who would be prohibited from playing tackle football beginning in 2025, followed by kids under 10 in 2027 and those younger than 12 in 2029.

At least five other states — Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York — have considered bills that would ban tackle football for children younger than 12. None has passed.

Like California, all of those states are reliably Democratic-leaning, and a recent Washington Post analysis of football participation found political orientation has a strong correlation with a state’s high school football participation rate. California has the ninth-lowest participation rate in the country. Roughly 14,000 fewer boys played high school football in 2022 than a decade earlier — a decline of about 13 percent, The Post found, compared with a 10 percent decline nationally.

Americans’ attitudes toward whether kids should play are increasingly shaped by politics, The Post found. In a 2023 Post poll of 1,006 adults, 75 percent of those who identified as conservatives said they would recommend youth or high school football to kids compared with only 44 percent of liberals. This was a striking change from a similar Post poll conducted in 2012, in which the conservative-liberal gap was only 70 percent to 63 percent.

In California, Democrats control the Assembly by a 62-18 margin and the Senate by a margin of 32-8.

Opponents of the bill mobilized ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, with a parade of nearly 50 youth football coaches, parents and preteen and teenage players lining up to state their opposition during the public testimony portion of the hearing. When members of the public who are in favor of the bill were invited to testify, only one did so.

“In communities that I grew up in and that I currently represent, tackle football is not merely an American pastime. It’s a central occurrence that ties close-knit communities together and integrates the surrounding areas,” Assemblyman Tom Lackey (R) said during Wednesday’s hearing, articulating his opposition to the bill. “The parents and coaches involved in these sports love the children participating in them. … I trust them to know what is in the best interests of their children.”

Even committee members who played football in their younger days were divided over AB734 on Wednesday. Vice chair Wallis, who said he played from the age of 8 through high school, argued that “every sport or activity” has inherent risk and that it would be wrong to single out only football with an age-based ban.

“We should continue to be vigilant on issues of youth safety,” Wallis said, “without singling out just one activity.”

But committee member Avelino Valencia (D), who played college football at San Jose State in 2009 and 2010 and who supports the bill, called football “a very dangerous and violent sport” and said, “We now know through the science the impact that type of physicality has on people long term.”

Pediatric neurologist Stella Legarda, president of the California Neurological Society, spoke in favor of the ban. She highlighted a 2023 Boston University report in which researchers studied the brains of 152 contact-sports participants who died before the age of 30 and found that 41.4 percent demonstrated signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

“The data is clear and unambiguous,” she said. “For young children especially, accumulated blows to the head of any magnitude must be prevented.”

Youth tackle football is already undergoing a nationwide decline, with regular participation by children 6 to 12 falling by 13 percent between 2019 and 2022, according to survey data from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.

At the same time, youth participation in flag football — a safer, noncontact version of the sport — has soared, surpassing tackle football for the first time in 2017. In 2022, just over 1 million kids played flag football regularly compared with around 725,000 in tackle.

During Wednesday’s hearing, proponents of AB734 made it clear the bill would not ban football for kids — only the tackle version.

“There’s a way to love football and protect our kids,” said McCarty, the bill’s sponsor. “I believe in youth sports. And [with flag football] there is a safe alternative here. Kids can do that and play other sports and still have all the other great things they learn about teamwork, competition and so forth.

“This is about saving kids and keeping kids safe. And I think that the focus on protection of human life and our future should always be at the forefront.”

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