Head injuries to young athletes are deeply serious. The recovery is slow and sometimes painful, and we don’t know nearly enough about the long-term effects on kids who’ve suffered them.
We do know the chance of injury isn’t reason enough to shut down youth sports altogether, given their myriad benefits. Instead, we should be looking for ways to make them safer. Talk to coaches, parents and league officials, and you’ll find that’s exactly what the adults in charge of youth football have done and continue to do.
Unfortunately, some on Beacon Hill, apparently unaware of what’s happening on the youth football field, can’t resist the temptation to wield a sledgehammer. They want to ban organized tackle football for kids in the seventh grade and younger, with the stated goal of preventing head injuries. Flag football is fine — not so much town leagues or Pop Warner.
While maybe well-intentioned, they’ve botched this particular play for a number of reasons, including the potential that it leads to more injuries, not fewer. The real problem here is this isn’t the purview of the Legislature. Rhetoric aside, there is no public health emergency. Head injuries in youth sports can and should be avoided. A more productive use of our lawmakers’ time would be learning more about them and their prevention, and finding ways to support those efforts. Outside of that, they should let parents decide what’s best for their children.
Instead, the lawmakers who brought this bill — House Minority Leader Brad Jones, R-North Reading, and Rep. Paul Schmid, D-Westport — called a full-on blitz. No more tackling for those players below the eighth-grade level. Schools and sports leagues violating the ban could see fines of $2,000 and up to $10,000 if someone gets seriously injured. Theirs is an extreme approach almost guaranteed to polarize debate with no productive result.
In fact, it could just make things worse, giving kids less opportunity to learn how to block, tackle or be tackled before they put on the pads to play in late middle school and high school.
“It’s very dangerous to think of young boys who wind up wanting to play football, and they have no background in the proper way of tackling. In an effort to make it safer, I think they’re making it more dangerous by implementing things like this,” St. John’s Prep coach Brian St. Pierre told reporter Paul Leighton. He speaks with authority. St. Pierre, who grew up in Salem, played at the Prep and Boston College, then had an eight-year career in the National Football League.
His reaction echoed those of other coaches, parents and players on the North Shore and Merrimack Valley who are frustrated, if not downright angry, by this bill. Most will sympathize with concerns about head injuries, particularly multiple head injuries. But what this legislation doesn’t consider are the layers upon layers of training for players and coaches in injury prevention and recognition. Equipment is evolving to be made more protective. Players are trained to tackle without hitting their heads.
“Ten years ago, you were banging all the time, doing all sorts of drills, hitting, hitting, hitting,” Fred Campatelli, president of Beverly Youth Football, told Leighton. “You don’t do any of that stuff anymore.”
For school sports, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association has implemented training and reporting protocols for head injury awareness and prevention — none of which involve banning tackling in football.
Maybe the 17 lawmakers who put their names to this bill can look into how youth sports would benefit from those procedures, and draw upon a vast well of people living in our state who specialize in this topic, before making some reasonable suggestions.