Health & Science

Should Kids’ Tackle Football Be Banned?

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New York state legislators are considering banning tackle football—in favor of flag football—for kids 12 and under due to the danger of repeated head trauma. The proposed bill is called the John Mackey Youth Football Protection Act, named after John Mackey, an NFL player from New York who developed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) due to repeated head injuries.

Advocates recently debated the bill on the New York State Assembly floor. One of the speakers, Dr. Mark Dracos of the Hospital for Special Surgery, pointed to a recent study by Boston University on NFL players which found that the “single greatest factor that drove whether or not they developed CTE was how many years they played tackle football.” Dr. Erich Anderer, chief of neurosurgery at New York University Langone Health, also spoke, arguing that there is no good reason to expose “thousands of children to the possibility of future brain dysfunction when a simple and reasonably unobtrusive solution [flag football] is in our grasp.” Former college football players were also among those advocating for the change in policy.

Some oppose the ban

But on the other side of the debate, arguments included the fact that more research is still needed to understand the causes of CTE; that not learning to tackle early on would stunt athletes’ potential to excel at the sport; that other sports come with dangers too; and that the game is already safer than it used to be.

Two similar bills were proposed but did not pass in the New York State Assembly last year: one that aimed to ban tackle football for children under 12, and another that would have mandated more information about concussions be distributed to parents of football players. California has succeeded in passing legislation that limits the amount of tackle practice allowed in youth football and requires professional monitoring of players’ health. Legislators in four other states have also proposed legislation to limit head injuries in youth football.

Injuries can have lifelong effects

The biggest concern of advocates and medical professionals is CTE—brain degeneration that is likely caused by repeated head traumas. Many former football players with long careers, such as John Mackey and T.J. Abraham (who argued in favor of the New York tackle ban), have developed dementia later in life—and while the exact cause can’t be pinpointed, most doctors agree it is likely due to repeated head injuries from playing football. A recent study from the University of Texas found that close to 6% of athletes and non-athletes have CTE, though it’s more common in athletes—and the number went up to 15% for those who had played football, the highest frequency of all contact sports studied.

The AAP recommends that when athletes get head injuries, a series of important protocols must be followed to prevent long-term damage. For example, all players with a suspected concussion “should be immediately removed from play and not returned to full sports participation until they have returned to their baseline level of symptoms and functioning and completed a full stepwise return-to-sport progression without a return of concussion symptoms.” Luckily, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have already passed legislation mandating schools to develop concussion protocols and restrict participation after suffering a head injury.



Joanna Eng is a freelance writer and editor, Lambda Literary Fellow, and co-founder of Dandelions, a parenting and social justice newsletter. She lives with her wife and child in the New York City area, where she is constantly seeking out slivers of nature. You can find her on Twitter @joannamengland.