California moves closer to becoming first state to ban tackle football for kids under 12

Los Angeles Times

January 10, 2024

The proposed law is striking in its brevity. Sure, the single sentence is a bit rambling, but California Assembly Bill 734 leaves no doubt about its directive:

“On and after January 1, 2026, a youth sports organization that conducts a tackle football program, or a youth tackle football league, shall not allow a person younger than 12 years of age to be a youth tackle football participant through the organization or league.”

An American rite of passage since shortly after World War II — donning a helmet and shoulder pads and learning how to block and tackle — would be forbidden until adolescence begins. The proposed legislation is prompted by the growing concerns over concussions and other brain trauma.

AB 734 was introduced last year by Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) — not to be confused with former House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) — and cleared its first hurdle Wednesday when a legislative committee voted 5 to 2 for the measure to be considered by the 80-member Assembly as early as next week.

The bill also would need to pass the 40-member Senate before reaching the desk of Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Research has shown tackle football causes brain damage, and the risk increases the longer people play the sport. Repeated concussions can cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy , which has been documented through brain studies of numerous deceased football players. The disease can lead to memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, aggression and dementia.

A 2016 study found that a single season of tackle football can affect the brains of players as young as 8. Researchers concluded that even hits that did not lead to a diagnosed concussion produced adverse effects.

No state has banned tackle football for kids, but there have been attempts to do so. Similar bills introduced previously in California, New York, Illinois, Massachusetts and Maryland failed to pass.

The proposed law comes on the heels of the 2021 California Youth Football Act, which requires tackle football coaches to complete concussion and head-injury education and for parents of young participants to receive similar information. The act also requires youth tackle football leagues to assist in tracking youth sports injuries.

AB 734 would permit youths under age 12 to play flag football, which has grown in popularity not only among boys but also among girls. The sport was sanctioned by the California Interscholastic Federation for girls for the first time in 2023, and 114 high schools fielded teams in the CIF Southern Section alone.

“Football and organizational sports in general are proven ways to keep kids out of trouble,” said Assemblymember Mike Gipson (D-Carson), chair of the committee that voted for the bill. “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.”

Tackle football at the high school level has been declining in California, although it increased by 5% in 2023. Participation dropped from a high of 103,725 players in 2015 to 84,626 players in 2022, more than 18%, according to the CIF.

An amendment to AB 734 approved by the committee Wednesday stipulates that implementation of the bill would be phased in. Children under age 6 would be prohibited from playing tackle football beginning in 2025, followed by children under age 10 in 2027 and children under age 12 in 2029.

“Kids only have one brain and only have one life, and there is irreversible damage to kids’ brains that is totally unnecessary,” McCarty said during the hearing.

About 50 youth football coaches, parents and players attended the hearing to state their opposition to the bill. When members of the public who were in favor of the bill were invited to testify, only one person 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,” said Assemblyman Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale), one of two committee members to vote against the bill. “I trust [parents and coaches] to know what is in the best interests of their children.”

Most 12-year-olds are in the sixth grade, the first year they would be allowed to play tackle football under the proposed law. That would give them three years of experience before beginning high school in the ninth grade.

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