Protesting bill to ban kids tackle football

Youth league coaches, players and parents protest at Massachusetts Statehouse Tuesday against bill to ban kids tackle football.

BOSTON – Popular legislation to ban tackle football in Massachusetts for kids through seventh grade has stirred vigorous opposition from youth league players, coaches and parents.

Dozens of them gathered outside the Capitol building Tuesday to protest the idea even though 75 percent of registered voters polled by WBUR, the NPR public radio station in Boston, said they believe tackling is unsafe for children before high school.

The legislation would fine schools and youth sports leagues $2,000 for each violation, up to $10,000 for those resulting in "serious physical harm.” Youths could still play flag or touch football.

Supporters of the legislation, which has 17 bipartisan co-sponsors, say research into brain trauma suggests tackle football is more harmful to younger players than once thought.

Youth football organizers say a ban isn't needed; that the sport is evolving to limit head injuries, teach players safer ways to tackle and eliminate kickoffs.

"We feel like there hasn't been enough credit given for changes to player safety that have taken place in recent years," said Nathan Bilotta, vice president of the Massachusetts Football Alliance, a group created in response to the legislation.

"We don't deny that concussions exist," he added. "But they happen in every other sport.” 

The protesters carried signs saying “Save Youth Football” and “Kill the Bill.” Speakers included Andre Tippett, a former New England Patriots All-Pro linebacker who now serves as the team’s executive director of community affairs. He and others said parents, not the government, should decide whether to allow their kids to play tackle football.

Supporters of a tackle ban, which include the Boston-based Concussion Legacy Foundation, say a growing body of research shows that players who started tackle football before age 12 have higher rates of depression, anxiety and memory issues than those who started after that age.

A recent study by the American Neurological Association found that kids who started playing tackle football before seventh grade were more likely to have cognitive, mood and behavior issues as adults, and showed symptoms of neurodegenerative disease such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, and Alzheimer’s disease decades earlier than the rest of the population.

New York, California, Maryland, New Jersey and other states have weighed similar legislation. To date, none has approved a ban on youth tackle football.

Christian M. Wade is the CNHI state reporter for Massachusetts. Reach him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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