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Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office said Jan. 16 that he would veto any bill with an outright ban on youth tackle football. “My Administration will work with the Legislature and the bill’s author to strengthen safety in youth football—while ensuring parents have the freedom to decide which sports are most appropriate for their children,” he said in a statement.

Anaheim Assemblymember Avelino Valencia is a former tight end for San Jose State who tried out for the NFL. Before entering politics, he was a community college football coach.

“The benefit that football has had in particular to my life, I cannot put a monetary amount on it,” he told his colleagues on the Assembly Arts, Entertainment, Sports and Tourism Committee.

So it was painful for Valencia to throw his support behind a bill headed for the Assembly floor that would make California the first state to set a minimum age for tackle football—banning the sport for children under 12. But he said the evidence that the repeated brain trauma football players endure game after game is too clear.

“It’s because it is a very dangerous and violent sport,” he said, his broad shoulders filling his suit jacket like a set of football pads. “There’s no ifs, ands or buts about that.”

The committee’s 5-2 party-line vote from Valencia and his fellow Democrats last week to advance the bill set in motion what’s likely to be one of the more emotionally charged issues California lawmakers will consider in 2024 as they wade into yet another contentious debate over parental rights.

This time, instead of vaccine requirements or LGBTQ policies at public schools, they’re debating the future of the country’s most popular sport, one that has a documented history of its players getting debilitating brain disease from repeated blows to the head. Several high-profile examples of former players—most notably the suicide of legendary NFL linebacker Junior Seau who suffered from a degenerative brain disease—have prompted the NFL down to youth leagues to try to make tackling safer. 

Researchers say tackle football is still dangerous despite the changes to the game. For instance, Boston University published research last year finding that players who’ve spent more than 11 years in the sport have an increased likelihood of brain trauma, leading to poor impulse control and thinking problems.

But there’s no guarantee Sacramento Democratic Assemblymember Kevin McCarty’s bill will advance beyond the Assembly, even in a Legislature that’s not shy about citing medical research to make decisions that outrage parental-rights groups and become “nanny state” fodder for national conservative media.

Assembly Bill 734 would phase in a ban, first prohibiting children under 6 from playing tackle football starting in 2025, and working up to bar those younger than 12 by 2029. It must pass on the Assembly floor by the end of the month if it’s going to eventually make its way through the state Senate to Newsom’s desk.

A handful of other state legislatures have debated similar youth tackle football bans. None have passed. A similar version of the bill in 2018 failed in California to even get out of committee.

Along the way, lawmakers are sure to see a repeat of last week’s hearing. Dozens of coaches, youth sports association officials, jersey-clad pre-teen football players and their parents spilled out of the hearing room into the hallway as they lined up to take the microphone and urge the committee to kill the measure.

The groups, including the California coalition of Save Youth Football, whose private Facebook group has nearly 7,000 members, have promised to keep up the pressure.

Already, the issue has taken on a partisan tone. A representative for Moms for Liberty, an influential group among conservatives known for seeking to ban textbooks that reference gender identity and academic discussions about systemic racism, was among those who testified in opposition last week.

“Huddle up California. Protect your parental rights. Stand up to Big Government,” the California Youth Football Alliance wrote on its Facebook page earlier this month, urging followers to contact McCarty’s office. 

Youth tackle football fans cite race, community ties

But youth tackle football is different from other parental-rights debates that are more easily framed as a Republican-Democrat dichotomy. 

As they weigh the bill, liberal lawmakers will consider arguments from the likes of Sacramento County Sheriff Jim Cooper, who opposes it.

Cooper, a Black former Democratic Assemblymember from Elk Grove, worries that banning youth tackle football would take away an outlet for young children in Black communities who might otherwise find their way into a gang. 

“Notably, Black male children engage in youth tackle football at higher rates than any other race,” Cooper told the committee last week in his sheriff’s uniform. “To my knowledge, there’s been no pressure to limit participation in lacrosse, soccer or ice hockey, which all have concussion rates similar to youth tackle football but are prevalent in more affluent and exclusive communities.”

Lawmakers, he said, have already passed legislation he authored in 2019 that limited full-contact youth football practices to no more than 30 minutes per day, two days a week. That bill had support from the California Youth Football Alliance.

Lawmakers also will have to weigh their own experiences with the sport. Assemblymember Tom Lackey, one of the Republicans on the sports and tourism committee, told his colleagues last week that he’s “participated in flag football and … participated in tackle football. They’re different.”

“If we ban this sport, we take away the opportunity and many opportunities from children to grow—not only as an athlete—but as a self-actualized adult who knows when they have the capabilities to overcome an obstacle and achieve success further,” said Lackey, a former California Highway Patrol sergeant from Palmdale. “We take away a lifelong passion for the love of the game.”

Experts warn of dangers from tackling

McCarty, the bill’s author and a former Pop Warner youth football player himself, said wanting to restrict young kids from tackling each other won’t negate their love for football, a sport that he said has been part of his family for as long as he can remember. 

“You can love football and love our kids and try to protect our kids at the same time,” he told the committee, after pulling out a ball with a 49ers logo. 

The experts McCarty brought in to testify in support of his bill included pediatric neurologist Dr. Stella Legarda, president of the California Neurology Society, which sponsored the bill. The group spent $17,983 on lobbying last year on this bill and others, according to the latest reports filed with the California Secretary of State. 

She pointed out that the NFL has been having its own players shed their pads and helmets to play flag football in its signature exhibition game, the Pro Bowl.

“When the NFL takes measures to protect its players by playing flag football in the Pro Bowl, it is not just safeguarding its multimillion investments,” Legarda told the committee. “It delivers the clear message that impact injuries and cumulative head trauma are perilous and should be minimized.”

Assemblymember Valencia, the former football player, told CalMatters in an interview that the bill and the concerns about the health of California’s youth football players were very much on his mind last year, as he stood on the sidelines of his alma mater, San Jose State, during its game with its rival, Cal State Fresno.

He said he was struck by “how violent and damaging” the sport he played is. He couldn’t imagine taking those sorts of hits at the speeds the players were moving, now, as a 35-year-old man.

Valencia said that young kids can play flag football and still learn the skills they’ll need to play tackle football when they’re older—without risking brain damage.

“Drills, becoming more athletic, agility, speed, that makes you a better football player,” he said. “But tackling? That comes second hand. You can figure that out in a very short period of time.”

Copyright © 2024 Bay City News, Inc. This story was originally published by CalMatters at tinyurl.com/3y9pvt8k

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