AB 734 would ban kids under 12 from competing in tackle football; opponents say regulations would be better
The future of youth tackle football in California is being put into question by state legislators.
Assembly Bill 734, authored by Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, was passed by the Assembly Committee on Arts, Entertainment, Sports and Tourism on Wednesday with a 5-2 vote. The legislation reads as follows: “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.”
The bill now moves to the full Assembly and will require at least 41 votes to move on to the Senate. McCarty had previously attempted to pass similar legislation in 2018 but pulled the bill before it could be brought up in committee.
At Wednesday’s livestreamed hearing, McCarty, who said he is not anti-football, referenced multiple studies that link brain injuries at early ages to lifelong health problems.
“This bill is very simple,” McCarty said. “It sets a standard that kids be 12 years old before they start playing tackle football because kids only have one brain, only have one life, and there’s irreversible damage to kids’ brains that is totally unnecessary.”
McCarty added that instead of tackle football, youth should be playing flag football. He referenced seven-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady as an example of someone who made it to the professional level despite not playing tackle football until he was in high school, saying, “It can wait.”
Amendments were added to the bill on Wednesday that would see tackle football be phased out rather than stopping it right away. Those would have participants prohibited under the age of 6 years old effective Jan. 1, 2025; participants prohibited under the age of 10 years old effective Jan. 1, 2027; and participants prohibited under the age of 12 years old effective Jan. 1, 2029.
The bill is sponsored by the California Neurology Society and is opposed by a large number of youth football leagues as well as the California Youth Football Alliance and the National Football Alliance.
Assemblyman Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, who sits on the committee, opposes the legislation and told The Signal in a phone interview on Wednesday that while he understands the risks associated with tackle football, he disagrees that banning it will solve the perceived problem.
“The sport of football is adapting and becoming smarter and shaking threatening practices,” said Lackey, whose district includes some eastern portions of the Santa Clarita Valley.
Referencing a speech delivered by Assemblyman Avelino Valencia, D-Anaheim, who played football at San Jose State, Lackey said the argument presented was that athleticism has increased, even in younger kids, leading to the sport of football becoming more violent in nature.
Lackey disagreed, saying that regulations are already in place that limit some of the helmet-to-helmet contact that leads to brain trauma. His argument was that, instead of an outright ban, there needs to be more research done on how to make the sport safer. He also said it should be up to parents to decide what is safer for their kids.
“I understand that the risk is that kind of injury is pretty severe, but I also don’t think it’s prevalent,” Lackey said. “I just don’t believe it’s a prevalent occurrence. It could be if we don’t take the measures that we’re taking. So, I do think that we need to pay attention to the risk. I don’t think it’s irrelevant. I think it’s important. But the way we manage that risk is not by eliminating the participation, it’s by regulating it.”
Understanding brain trauma and the long-term consequences
While McCarty referenced medical studies that show tackle football to be dangerous for kids, Dr. Mark Liker is actually against banning the sport for kids. A neurosurgeon at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital, Liker told The Signal in a phone interview on Thursday that, like Lackey, he believes regulations would be better than an outright ban.
“I think we can do a lot more to protect the children from head injury,” Liker said. “But the time that you learn to play a sport is when you’re under 12, and I think that would exclude a lot of the opportunities that children have from participating in sports.”
Liker added that he generally does not see significant head trauma patients who are under 12 years of age as the force that they hit with is not strong enough to cause great harm. He did say that it is vital to recognize when someone is exhibiting signs of head trauma.
According to Liker, some of the warning signs for head trauma include:
- Altered sensorium, or a general state of confusion or loss of consciousness or memory.
- Changes in pupil size caused by blood clots.
- Tingling in the arms or back pain due to nerve damage.
- Trouble with focusing.
While he said that significant head trauma is uncommon in youth, Liker emphasized the importance of treating head injuries, no matter how inconsequential they may appear at first. He said the odds of long-term damage are significantly higher if a player is allowed to continue playing with the head trauma and that player takes another blow to the head, which is known as the “second hit” phenomenon.
“If a child does have a severe concussion,” Liker said, “if they’re put back on the (field) during a game, and they’re put back on the playing field too quickly, while they still continue to have symptoms, they could have very severe outcomes with major brain injury beyond what you would expect to see based on the degree of impact of that second hit.”
Liker said he has seen this phenomenon in only two patients in his 29 years of being a neurosurgeon.
People who sustain multiple concussions over long periods of time tend to have behavioral issues and trouble focusing, among other possible life-altering problems, Liker said.
“If the parent thinks that there’s something different, they’re just not quite the same, frequently (kids) might say that they have trouble focusing, concentrating, their sleep cycles are off,” Liker said, “those are also signs of post-concussive syndrome, and the child really has to be kept out of any contact sports until all the symptoms are resolved.”
Keeping football safe
West Ranch High School football head coach Chris Varner is the father of two sons who played football in their youth before going on to play for him at the high school level. And if you ask him, there is possibly a greater risk for youth playing flag football instead of tackle football.
“I have seen greater head injuries in flag football than I have in tackle football because you are still going up for a ball, you are still going for a flag, you are still hitting the ground, but now you are doing it without the protection of a helmet,” Varner said in a phone interview.
Hitting on a point that both Lackey and Liker touched on, Varner argued that with proper coaching, youth football players can learn to hit appropriately so as to not target the head area or use excessive force.
The bigger issues that Liker talked about, though, are regulations and education.
“You need a well-fitting helmet and, really, a lot of education,” Liker said. “I think the kids, coaches and parents have to spend additional time training the kids, teaching the kids, warning the kids about how not to get involved in contact where there’s potential head injury. I’d say the most important element (is) how to hit correctly.”
Varner said practices are safer these days than when he played growing up, and players have the option to wear what are known as guardian caps over their helmets that are meant to add a protective layer.
“We try to take the head out of football as much as possible,” Varner said. “We don’t just line kids up and have them smash into each other like a car crash like we used to. We are using intelligence behind coaching to prevent injuries.
“If you’re gonna legislate anything, I would say let’s look at legislating proper equipment,” he continued. “Why aren’t the schools paying for better helmets? Why aren’t the youth organizations getting money for helmets to protect the kids? If you really want to protect them, let’s look at making sure that kids get the best possible equipment to keep them safe. That’s how you keep people safe.”
Despite opponents of the ban seeing their efforts be in vain on Wednesday, the bill still has to get past the full Assembly, and then pass the 40-member Senate before going to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk. He would then have to decide whether to sign the bill into law or veto it, sending it back to the Legislature.
Lackey wasn’t sure when the bill will be brought to the full Assembly for a vote. He’s hoping it won’t be for a few weeks.
“That’s a process that has a lot of variables to it,” he said.
In the meantime, Lackey is hopeful that enough people will voice their opposition to sway legislators toward the opinion that youth tackle football should not be banned.
“I hope the people that have an opinion on this will become active and engaged, because this is an important decision,” Lackey said. “We need to make sure we make the right decision.”
Count Varner as one local person who will do what he can to keep youths playing football in the Santa Clarita Valley and across the state, saying this is essentially an attack on personal freedom.
“I know lots of people that have gotten concussions in other sports,” Varner said, “so are we going to start banning those too? You can’t really legislate everything.”
As for how the bill would stand in the Assembly, Lackey believes there’s a decent chance of it moving on.
“Very, very possible that it passes,” Lackey said. “Those of us who oppose this need to do what we can to stabilize the situation and stop it before these kids are denied something very, very big.”