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Bill Tackling Head Injuries Calls for Ban on Contact Before Grade 8

February 27, 2019
A Fitchburg Youth Football team competes against Leominster on Sept. 16, 2017 at Crocker Field in Fitchburg. Legislators are considering a bill that would ban children in seventh grade or younger from playing tackle football. SENTINEL & ENTERPRISE FILE PHOTO

BOSTON -- State lawmakers are considering banning tackle football for elementary and middle-school students, citing the danger of serious head injuries, but several local representatives and football organizations are pushing back.

The bipartisan bill, known as the NO HITS Act, calls for delaying tackling in youth football until after seventh grade. Any school or league in violation would be fined $2,000 on the first offense -- and $5,000 on the second offense, if it occurred within a year of the first.

“There is significant science detailing repetitive head impacts have long-term neurological consequences, especially when they occur during brain development,” Rep. Paul Schmid, D-Westport, said in a joint Tuesday statement with Rep. Bradley Jones, R-North Reading. “The trauma does not need to escalate to the point of a concussion to be harmful to children.”

In an interview with WGBH Radio, Schmid said the state government needs to step in because there is no single statewide authority that governs football like there are for youth soccer or hockey, sports that have taken steps to eliminate parts of the game that most often lead to head injuries.

“There’s a lot of science ... that says we got to be really careful with young heads,” Schmid said.

While youth athletic programs reinforce positive lessons, including teamwork, leadership and hard work, player safety is always important to consider, Rep. Harold Naughton, D-Clinton, said in a statement.

“We must always prioritize the safety of our children and their development,” Naughton said. “Head trauma is a serious issue and we are even now learning more about the devastating impacts it can have on cognitive development. I think it’s important we begin to look at this bill and others to make sure we as a Legislature are effectively addressing this important issue.”

The bill was filed as a result of an American Neurological Association study, which found that those who started playing tackle football before turning 12 years old were more likely to have cognitive, mood and behavior issues as adults, according to the statement. Beginning tackle football sooner could also lead to earlier symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the statement said.

“I signed on to this bill to try to raise awareness of this issue and to start a discussion,” Jones said in the statement. “Some football programs have already made changes indicating that there is at least some recognition of this problem. If this bill does nothing else, I am hopeful that it starts a dialogue that will lead to the implementation of best practices and standards across the board to protect kids from long-term brain injuries.”

But because several local youth football organizations have already implemented changes that prioritize player safety and decrease serious injuries, Rep. Marc Lombardo, R-Billerica, said he would not support the new bill, which he feels strips away parents’ freedom in raising their children.

“It’s a bad bill,” Lombardo said. “It’s another case of Beacon Hill overreaching into every aspect of people’s lives and once again trying to take away parental control.”

In Billerica, Lombardo said teachers, coaches, parents and student athletes are learning techniques for safer play through USA Football’s Heads Up, 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.

“There’s far more awareness in major head injuries today than there ever was ... And Billerica is doing a great amount to make sure kids are safe,” he said.

Rep. David Nangle, D-Lowell, also said he believed families should have the final say on the matter.

“Football has a long and proud history in the Merrimack Valley, in this state, and for that matter, throughout the country,” Nangle said. “So I would say that I believe the parents -- given updated and accurate data about the dangers of repeated head blows -- should be able to make informed decisions about whether their son or daughter should be able to play tackle football before high school.”

Legislators also pointed out that football isn’t the only activity where children could easily get injured.

“The obvious intent is safety, but the key here is education on head injuries. Not banning a sport,” said Rep. Tom Golden, D-Lowell. “You could get hurt biking, skiing or skateboarding too ... That’s not going to solve anything -- getting rid of every sport where you could potentially get hurt. Then there wouldn’t be any sports.”