Bill to ban tackling in youth football gains ground on Beacon Hill

The Massachusetts Statehouse. (Photo by Ana Goni-Lessan/BU News Service)

By Brianna McKinley
BU News Service

BOSTON – The sun was bright and the temperature unseasonably warm last month when the New England Patriots once again climbed atop duck boats and rolled down Boylston Street to celebrate their latest Super Bowl win.

But a few miles away on Beacon Hill, a shadow was looming over the future of youth football in Massachusetts.

That’s because a bipartisan bill calling for a ban on tackling in football until after seventh grade had been filed in the state Legislature.

The bill, titled An Act for No Organized Head Impacts to Children (nicknamed “No Hits Act”), would involve financial penalties – $2,000 for the first offense and $5,000 for the second offense – for any school league or other entity that does not comply with the rule.

The initiative is in response to the latest research on the long-term effects of head trauma in children and was referred to the Legislature’s Public Health Committee last week.

“We must always prioritize the safety of our children and their development,” said state Rep. Harold Naughton, D-Clinton, in a statement. “Head trauma is a serious issue and we are even now learning more about the devastating impacts it can have on cognitive development.”

State Rep. Paul Schmid, D-Westport, an original co-sponsor, cited similar concerns.

“The trauma does not need to escalate to the point of a concussion to be harmful to children,” he said in a joint statement with House Minority Leader Bradley Jones of North Reading.

One study, conducted by Boston University in 2017, found 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 compared to those that started after 12 years of age.

“This study adds to growing research suggesting that incurring repeated head impacts through tackle football before the age of 12 can lead to a greater risk for short- and long-term neurological consequences,” said Michael Alosco, a post-doctoral fellow and lead author of the study.

Still, opposition to the bill was swift.

Parents, coaches, and other community members quickly drew up a petition, called “Save Youth Football MA” to be delivered to Gov. Charlie Baker as well as both chambers of the Legislature. It currently has 10,837 signatures with a goal of 15,000, according to its website.

The petition’s aim is to defeat the bill and inform Beacon Hill of “the effects of local leagues, administrators, coaches, and families to improve the safety of youth football,” the petition reads.

Some legislators have also vowed to not support the bill. In a comment to The New York Times, state Rep. David Nangle, D-Lowell, equated banning tackle football to getting rid of other youth sports altogether.

“Should we ban youth soccer too?” he asked. “Or youth hockey? When do we stop legislating into areas that we shouldn’t be?”

Similar efforts to ban tackling or reduce contact between players in other states have so far been thwarted.

The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association made headway last month by introducing new guidelines to cut back on contact in high school practices, but broader legislative moves at the state level were stymied by protests, mostly stemming from coaches and parents. Other bills in New York, California, Illinois, and Maryland have also failed.

Chris Skiffington, vice president of Sudbury Youth Football, said his reaction to the bill is split.

“I don’t like the idea of the state Legislature stepping in to manage or influence youth sports,” he said. “On the other hand, youth football needs to adapt in order for it to thrive.”

The bill mentions precedence for regulation in other youth sports such as hockey and lacrosse, in which contact is discouraged in younger players. Skiffington says football could change its style of play similarly to make it a more appealing choice for families with children who wish to participate.

Although Skiffington ultimately does not support the bill because he feels it constitutes legislative overreach, he hopes the attention it receives will encourage the officials within youth football itself to make changes.

“Like in other sports you have traditionalists that don’t want to change,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s the right thing for the future of the game. If this bill does anything, I hope it puts some pressure on the governing bodies in youth football to think about what changes they can make to ensure the sport continues to grow.”

This article was previously published in The MetroWest Daily News.

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