AP NEWS

Groups Throw Flag on Legislation

February 27, 2019
Westford and Dracut Pop Warner football teams face off in September of 2015. Legislators are considering a bill that would ban children in seventh grade or younger from playing tackle football. sun file photo Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

CHELMSFORD -- A football linebacker zeroes in on the running back sprinting up the sideline.

The defender lowers his head, driving his crown into the running back’s body.

The days of that dangerous head technique are over, youth football coaches emphasized this week -- in response to a Massachusetts proposal to ban tackle football for those in seventh grade and younger.

Youth coaches now teach a rugby-style tackle, so kids are learning how to tackle while not leading with their heads, said Angela Dulac, president of Chelmsford Pop Warner.

She added that it’s “preposterous” this legislative bill has been proposed.

“Perhaps they’re not aware of the steps many organizations are taking to ensure the safety of our children,” Dulac said. “We make sure the kids are safe out on that field.”

The aim of the bill, titled an Act for No Organized Head Impacts to Schoolchildren, is to protect kids from concussions.

Flag football has gained popularity in recent years, as an increasing number of parents worry about their kids suffering concussions from tackle football.

Other sports have implemented head-safety youth rules over the years, including the U.S. Soccer Federation prohibiting those aged 10 and younger from heading the ball.

However, local youth coaches and leaders are now mobilizing to squash this football proposal, stressing they’ve made significant advances in player safety.

The online petition, “Save Youth Football MA,” has received more than 4,000 signatures as of Tuesday morning. It will be delivered to Gov. Charlie Baker and the Legislature.

“We would like to defeat bill HD-2501 proposed to the MA State Legislature while informing MA State leadership of the efforts of local leagues, administrators, coaches, and families to improve the safety of youth football,” the petition states.

Advancements in training, equipment, styles of play and rule changes have been overlooked, according to youth league leaders.

Fitchburg Youth Football’s vice president, Nathan Bilotta, said they’ve made major alterations in the last seven years regarding overall contact and player safety.

“They think kids are lining up and bashing their heads together for two hours, and that just doesn’t happen,” he said.

Five years ago, Fitchburg Youth Football adopted USA Football’s Heads Up strategies, a 2012 program developed by football experts and medical professionals that requires all coaches to be certified in football safety and educates players on concussion response.

Now, athletes in the youngest age groups don’t do kickoffs or punts, Bilotta said. They play on a half field, and are limited in how many hours per week they can play full-contact football.

“It’s a very strict, written policy,” Bilotta said. “We’re aware of the movement and we’re aware of the concerns, and that’s why we require so much education. We’re trying to evolve the program into a safer program, but still allow the positive aspects of football -- the teamwork, the discipline, the things that make football what it is.”

He added that the bill is well-intentioned, but misses the mark. He wants to have a constructive conversation with legislators about it.

St. Bernard’s High School football coach Tom Bingham, who has been coaching for more than two decades, called today’s coaching “night and day” from five years ago.

Tackling used to be taught completely differently on all levels, he stressed. Coaches now teach the rugby-style, which helps reduce the risk for concussions, Bingham added.

“To witness the changes over the last five years, I only wished everyone had done it sooner,” he said.

Instead of outright banning youth tackle football, the legislators should learn about the dramatic safety changes, Bingham said. Then, they can propose additional improvements to make the game even safer, he said.

Follow Rick Sobey on Twitter @rsobeyLSun.