High School Football

'Tackle football is not the enemy.' Proposal to ban youth tackle football draws ire.

Parents, coaches launch opposition campaign to save tackle football in California

Hours after California legislators Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, and Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, D-San Diego, unveiled a plan to outlaw tackle football until high school, angry coaches, parents and former players began mobilizing to protect America’s fa
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Hours after California legislators Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, and Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, D-San Diego, unveiled a plan to outlaw tackle football until high school, angry coaches, parents and former players began mobilizing to protect America’s fa

Two California legislators will introduce the "Safe Youth Football Act," a bill that would prohibit children from playing organized tackle football before high school.

Yet, coaches, former players and youth football leaders from Sacramento to Merced question the merits and motive of the bill proposed by Assembly members Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) and Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego).

In an article in the Los Angeles Times, McCarty and Gonzalez Fletcher said the bill was borne from discussions with medical professionals, who worry about the long-term effects tackling and blocking have on the brain. Flag football, they propose, is a safe alternative for the state's youth.

“The science is clear: head injuries sustained at a young age can harm kids for the rest of their lives,” Gonzalez Fletcher said in a statement. “Developing skills through flag football before high school is sound public policy from a health and safety standpoint.”

Those inside the game have fired back.

A petition, launched by Natomas parent and youth football coach Jason Ingman, generated more than 30,000 signatures in three days, according to a story in The Sacramento Bee. A Twitter handle -- SaveCaliforniaFootball -- has nearly 1,000 followers and hasn't shied away from engaging the lawmakers.

Closer to home, coaches are digging in their heels, as well.

"I think the game of football has always had risk, but coaches have been working to improve the safety and the game will continue to evolve and be safer," Downey High coach Jeremy Plaa said. "Legislators telling parents what they can and can't do is not the way to go. Parents should be able to make their own educated decisions."

In Turlock, they have.

Joe Lewis has been involved with the Turlock Youth Football organization in a coaching and leadership capacity for 24 years.

Turlock Youth Football has two franchises -- the Bulldogs and the Pride, named after the city's two high schools -- with four teams apiece. Lewis, who serves as the organization's president and Bulldog varsity coach, estimates TYF services more than 300 children each year.

When registration opens in March, Lewis expects the same turnout, regardless of the "Safe Youth Football Act."

DN Youth football 07.JPG
Peewee division players go through drills at Central Valley 49er youth football and cheerleading practice, July 31, 2012, held at the Muncy School grounds. Debbie Noda The Modesto Bee

"I've seen a lot of petitions and things of that nature going around," Lewis said. "It doesn't seem like it's been positively taken in this area. Every year, we have the best equipment on the market, from the helmets to the shoulder pads. As far as safety goes, that's our top priority. The parents in our town know that."

Further south, in Merced, youth football is more than just a sport. It's become an affordable haven for children and low-income families. Banning youth football would "hurt our community," said one youth football board member.

"We're disappointed and hope it doesn't pass," said Cassie Davis, a board member for the Merced Bears youth football program the last 11 years. "It would hurt our community. Our program helps keep kids off the streets. We have a lot of kids from low-income families who participate. We're like an after-school program. We feel we give kids the proper training and safe equipment. It would be sad if it's gone."

Lewis acknowledged safe alternatives, like flag, but said the lack of organized tackle football experience would leave them prone to injury in high school and set back their development.

"We have flag and that's fine," Lewis said. "Some of those kids will never play high school football, though, because of the physical part of it. They either don't want to, or their parents aren't OK with it, but (flag) does give them an option to still be a part of football."

Ripon High football coach Chris Musseman believes there needs to be a greater investment and focus on coaching, at all youth levels.

"I don't think they are attacking the real issue here," said Musseman, whose Indians won a share of the Trans-Valley League last fall. "Tackle football is not the enemy. Teaching how to play the game in the safest way possible is a very difficult task for all of us. To ask volunteer coaching to do it in a couple of nights a week without training is where the focus needs to be. Keeping kids away from the game will make it only more dangerous; teaching it right will improve safety."

In a global discussion about brain injury and safety in sports, the game of football -- king among all U.S. sports -- has been made the whipping boy.

Sonora High coach Bryan Craig and Plaa fear that if the "Safe Youth Football Act" passes, politicians won't stop with football. Other team sports, like soccer and baseball, may find their game in the capitol's crosshairs.

"The benefits of team sports is immense and football has huge participation numbers for a reason," Plaa said. "Critics are going after football because of the money trail, and what happens if they are successful? What's next? Soccer? Baseball? Stats can be shown to show dangers in any sport. Teenagers are thousands of times more likely to get in a major accident driving a car than playing football, but legislators haven't changed the driving age from 16, and all of us give our teens the keys to our car."

Craig believes banning youth football will create more bad than good at small schools like Sonora High. He fears fewer players will try out for the high school football team, and a lack of depth will force those that do to play both ways, increasing their chance of injury.

"I think we will see numbers drop at our level because of it," Craig said. "Kids will find other interests and pursue them. I don't see the risk factor at all. We train all our kids to tackle and play the game safely no matter what level of experience they may have."

Plaa's final plea is to keep politicians out of the game. Instead, support effective coaching, stock up on proper equipment, educate the families, and let the parents decide whether their child should play tackle football or not.

"The main risk this poses is the ability for a politician to try to out-do the next one and try to introduce their own bill to ban games up the ladder. It is a great chance to gain attention for their political career," Plaa said. "This proposed bill would not make the game safer in any way. Neither does limiting our practice time, which is another bill making its way through the state assembly. Coaches are working hard to improve our great game. If parents are still concerned, they should be the ones to decide for their kids, not politicians."