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Youth Football, Not State, Should Take on Head Injuries

March 1, 2019

Some state lawmakers would like to take over the play-calling duties for parents of youth football league participants by instituting a ban on tackling until the eighth grade.

This bipartisan blitz, known as the NO HITS Act, would exact fines up to $5,000 on any school or league found violating this law.

State Rep. Paul Schmid, D-Westport, one the bill’s backers, told WGBH Radio that state government needs to step in because there’s no single authority that governs football, as in youth soccer or hockey, sports that have taken steps to eliminate parts of the game that most often lead to head injuries.

At this point, there’s no debate about the potential long-term physical and emotional consequences of repeated blows to the head -- primarily Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease -- which most often occur in the sports of football and boxing.

What’s up for debate involves how to minimize these debilitating effects at every level of competition, from youth football to the NFL.

While we don’t have all the answers, we’re certain encroachment by state government isn’t one of them.

It’s up to the parents or guardians of youngsters engaged in sports to ensure their safety, not micro-managing lawmakers on Beacon Hill.

However, we do agree with state Rep. Bradley Jones, R-North Reading, who told the newspaper he signed on to this legislation to raise awareness and start a conversation.

And a conversation with legislators is just what many local youth football officials want, so they can apprise lawmakers of the many safety strides they’ve made.

Angela Dulac, president of Chelmsford Pop Warner, told the newspaper the days of instructing players to lead with their head are over. She said youth coaches now teach a rugby-style tackle, which doesn’t involve head contact.

Nathan Bilotta, Fitchburg Youth Football’s vice president, said his league adopted USA Football’s Heads Up strategies five years ago. That program, developed by football experts and medical professionals, requires all coaches to be certified in football safety and educates players on concussion response.

The youth football community’s passionate response to this ban initiated an online petition, “Save Youth Football MA,” which had received more than 4,000 signatures as of Tuesday morning. That will be delivered to Gov. Charlie Baker and the Legislature.

Its intention is to prompt a further discussion, and hopefully reach a non-legislative consensus.

Most attempts at government intervention are best left in the arena of personal choice -- and that includes tackling in youth football.

Obviously influenced by injury concerns, over the past three years, the number of 6- to 12-year-olds playing flag football has increased by 38 percent, to more than 1.5 million. That’s nearly 100,000 more than those who currently play tackle football, according to a study by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.

Even the NFL, concerned about declining participation in tackle football, has promoted flag football to prevent young athletes and their families from abandoning the game entirely.

Like any other institution, youth football must address the safety concerns raised by informed and concerned individuals -- not government bodies -- if it wants to survive.

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