New York Legislature Renews Effort to Ban Tackle Football for Children Under 12

There is a heated debate about the dangers and future of football.

On one side, people are extremely concerned about the grave risks of the game and are calling for some serious changes to safeguard our youth from long-term brain problems.

On the other side, people do not want to tarnish the way America’s most beloved sport is played. Opponents do not buy that there is a definitive link between youth football and brain injury. They believe that sufficient changes have already been made to the game to make it safer and that the best way to ensure safety on the football field is to teach kids proper blocking and tackling techniques early on. Another big argument for the opposition is parent autonomy (i.e. parents do not want the government controlling what their kids can and cannot do).

Regardless of what side of the debate you are on, it is hard to deny the science behind the negative impact that football has on an adolescent’s brain.

Several studies suggest that kids who play tackle football before age 12 have a higher risk of developing CTE, a degenerative brain disease which can cause problems with thinking and memory, including memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, and eventually progressive dementia.

Photo credit: NYTimes

Doctors have found that tackle football and the hard hits to the head that come with it are more damaging to young players because their brains are not fully developed and are less capable of fully repairing themselves. Younger players also have weaker neck muscles that make it harder to properly brace for hard impact.

In response to these findings, New York lawmakers have proposed a bill, the John Mackey Youth Football Protection Act, that would prevent organized youth football leagues and schools from offering the tackle version of the game. The proposed bill is designed to safeguard young children and prevent the dangers of head trauma.

The bill was named after John Mackey, a New York-born man who started playing football at a very young age and eventually became a star tight end in the NFL. Unfortunately, after suffering from severe dementia, he passed away in 2011. After his death, Mackey’s widow pushed the NFL to start a benefits program for families caring for former players with dementia. Mackey now stands as a symbol of reform.

John Mackey with his wife, Sylvia, before his death. Photo credit: Youtube

Several analysts predict that this bill is not likely to pass. Although the bill is sponsored by Michael Benedetto, a Member of the New York State Assembly, the bill lacks a co-sponsor in the State Senate. Another hurdle for Benedetto and those supporting the bill is the fact that anti-football legislation such as this typically faces a lot of hostility. In the past, any alteration to the game has resulted in a lot of backlash from players, fans, and industry titans. This hostility and backlash likely stems from the fact that American football plays a massive role in our society, our economy, and to many people’s identity.

This bill in particular is facing backlash because some believe there is not enough definitive evidence linking tackle football to long-term brain problems. Dr. Barry Willer, professor of psychiatry at the University at Buffalo, explained that while “CTE exists in some former athletes,” the link between contact sports and CTE “is not a sure thing.” Dr. Willer, along with several other doctors, believe that more evidence is necessary to see whether there is actually a link.

Still, Benedetto, who first introduced the bill in 2013, remains optimistic about the bill’s mission and its future. He believes the evidence that links years of playing tackle football to long-term cognitive and neurological problems alone makes the case that this legislation is needed.

“I firmly believe that when we see evidence of the danger to children, we need to act on that,” Benedetto said. “There are laws that you need to use a car seat, wear a bicycle helmet. It’s the same principle.”

Benedetto has pointed out that the protections proposed by the John Mackey Youth Football Protection Act are not unprecedented. In fact, New York is not the first state to propose a bill like this. With increasing attention focused on football and the risk of brain injury, legislation has been proposed in several states to ban youth tackle football, and New York is currently one of 6 states with active proposals.

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The actions to promote player safety in other amateur sport organizations may also help Benedetto’s cause. In 2015, the United States Soccer Federation banned players under the age of 10 from “heading” the ball. The Soccer Federation also plans on reducing headers in practice for those from ages 11 to 13.

Photo credit: NYTimes

For now, the fate of this bill remains entirely unclear. However, we should be hearing more about the proposed John Mackey Youth Football Act soon, as more than a dozen people spoke to an Assembly committee on Tuesday about it.

In the end, the outcome of this bill will likely turn on whether the New York Legislature believes that the available evidence is sufficient to link tackle football to long-term cognitive and neurological problems, that this policy is worth obstructing parental autonomy, and is necessary to protect our children from the dangers of brain trauma.

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