Children younger than the age of 12 should not play tackle football. It is too dangerous.
We say that as an editorial board, and also as parents. We don’t say it as a matter of potential law. We believe this is a decision best left to parents, not dictated by the Illinois Legislature.
If ever there was a problem that seems to be taking care of itself, this is it. Participation in youth tackle football is plummeting, even without legal bans, as the risks become more widely understood. Since 2009, participation among boys ages 6 to 12 has fallen nearly 20 percent, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, and you can bet participation will fall further as more parents wise up.
On Thursday, state Rep. Carol Sente, a Democrat from Vernon Hills, introduced legislation to ban tackle football for kids under 12 in Illinois. Her bill, supported by a group of former NFL players and physicians, is called the Dave Duerson Act, named for the former Bears player who committed suicide in 2011.
Duerson suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a deterioration of the brain thought to be caused by repeated blows to the head.
“The bill honors my family’s hopes and my father’s legacy to protect future athletes and the future of football,” Tregg Duerson, David’s son, said.
We can’t support this bill, believing it intrudes without sufficient justification on the rights of parents, but it’s sure nice to see that 80 percent of American adults already have come around to the view that tackle football is not appropriate for children under age 14. Anybody who loves or profits from the game would be smart to agree.
If the NFL, for one, does not go the extra mile to make football safer at every age – by, among other measures, taking a complete and firm stand against younger kids playing tackling football – the game will go the way of boxing, which also was once wildly popular and profitable.
We respect the intentions of Sente and the others pushing this bill, so we’ll devote the remainder of this editorial to the evidence that tackle football really does do a number on a child’s developing brain.
CTE is a progressive disease that spreads slowly through the brain, killing cells. Researchers have found that the more tackle football played, the greater the risk of CTE. And the kind of milder hits to the head that coaches used to tell kids to “shake off” – those constant hits that go virtually unnoticed – can be just as devastating over time.
As the physicians supporting the Dave Duerson Act point out, children may be smaller and slower on a football field, but they suffer head hits every bit as dangerous as those sustained by college football players because their heads are larger relative to their bodies and their necks are small and weak.
In 2016, doctors at the Wake Forest School of Medicine using magnetic resonance imaging found that boys between the ages of 8 and 13 who played just one season of tackle football had diminished function in parts of their brains.
Last year, researchers at Boston University found that 110 out of 111 brains of deceased former NFL players had CTE.
Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football organization, opposes the proposed ban in Illinois on tackle football for children. On Thursday, the group made the same argument we’re making: It’s a decision best left to parents.
But what Pop Warner spokesman Brian Heffron said next was just plain foolish. “Literally millions of young people have played Pop Warner football for nearly 90 years and have grown up to be healthy, successful adults contributing to society in so many ways,” he said.
Yes, that is true. Most kids survive the hammering, at least in the short-run. Millions of Americans who grew up in a world of pealing lead paint, leaded gasoline, belching factory smoke and a haze of cigarette smoke also grew up to be “healthy, successful adults.”
But millions did not.
What parent would knowingly submit their children to such dangers?