By Zach Cavanagh
San Clemente, San Juan Hills and Capistrano Valley Christian are among at least 112 California high school football programs that have marked themselves against a proposed California State Assembly bill that would ban tackle football for children under 12 years old.
AB 734, introduced by State Assemblymember Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), claims it would “protect young athletes from being subjected to brain injury and trauma associated with playing tackle football.”
The bill, which was first read on Feb. 13, referred to committee on Feb. 23 and will be heard by that committee in April, cites a Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that the risk for concussion and head injuries increases with the number of head impacts, and that tackle football athletes between the ages of 6-14 experience 15 times more head impacts in a practice or game than they do in flag football.
“Flag football is an alternative that is safer for youth and can still give them the opportunity to learn the skills to be successful at tackle football later in life,” McCarty said in a release. “The 2023 NFL Pro Bowl was a flag football game for the safety of the players. Why can’t we have that for our youth? AB 734 will help protect kids and nurture their brain development, and not put them in a situation that’s proven to cause irreparable harm.”
This is not McCarty’s first attempt at this legislation. In 2018, McCarty co-sponsored AB 2108, labeled as the “Safe Football Act,” which originally called for a ban before high school and settled down to the same 12-year-old age limit as this year’s bill. However, the 2018 bill was pulled before it reached a committee vote due to lack of support.
In 2019, the state did pass the California Youth Football Act, which instituted a set of safety standards for youth tackle football, including proper training and certification for coaches and restrictions on the number of full-contact practice sessions.
Last year, AB 1348, which would have required a commission on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and youth football “to investigate the risks of brain injury associated with participation in youth tackle football,” was pushed through the State Assembly. However, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed the bill.
“The effectiveness of these recently implemented safety measures (from the California Youth Football Act, which took effect in January of 2021) has not been sufficiently assessed,” Newsom said in a September 2022 release on the veto. “More research is needed to better understand current safety measures and the risks. Furthermore, this bill would require more than $2 million to implement, which was not accounted for in the budget.”
San Clemente High School football coach Jaime Ortiz, whose oldest son just completed Pop Warner football and has a younger son playing tackle football, opposed the legislation and said it should come down to a decision by parents.
“There are multiple levels of football out there, and there are options for finding what’s right for your child,” Ortiz said. “With my son, he played two years of tackle, then a year of flag and then went back to pads. … They (my sons) get it. My son going through Pop Warner, I saw a difference in a maturity level in playing a team sport. We do what we feel is best for the family.”
San Juan Hills High School football coach Rob Frith, who also has a son in youth tackle football, echoed Ortiz’s sentiment and praised the specific lessons that kids would learn in tackle football over flag football or any other sport.
“When I look at the positives of a sport like youth tackle football and compare that to the long-term risk,” Frith said, “I feel that, for myself, the positive experiences, what they learn about punctuality, toughness, grit, all these things are taught in tackle football at an age where cognitive development is important.”
“I’ve been around a lot of sports,” Frith continued, “but there’s no other sport where the kids are going to learn that they’re going to be OK. You’re going to battle through when you’re uncomfortable. The good coaches teach them they’re going to be OK or they have a little more to give. This will pass. I’m going to get through this. It develops the resilience.”
Frith also emphasized the coaching aspect for youth football in drilling down proper tackling technique for young players, mentioning that his son has tackled players nearly 80 pounds heavier without fear of injury because he’s been taught how to do so safely. Frith also noted that it can be important to learn safe tackling techniques at the youth level, because “the speed and strength will only become greater” as players move through the ranks.
One of the major proponents of AB 734 and research on concussions and CTE in athletes is Chris Nowinski, co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation and a former Harvard football player and professional wrestler. Nowinksi also earned a Ph.D. in Behavioral Neuroscience from Boston University in 2017.
“It’s time to protect our young children from a harm they cannot understand,” Nowinski said in McCarty’s release on AB 734. “To protect them, we don’t let children smoke, drink, or use indoor tanning beds. Why would we let 8-year-olds participate in an activity that we now know can give them a brain disease?”
Nowinski turned harder onto the parents of youth football in a radio interview on Monday, March 13.
“If I was advising you as a parent, I wouldn’t put my kid in tackle high school (football),” Nowinski told Vicki Gonzalez of Capital Public Radio. “Football is a CTE-creating machine. … Once you have testosterone and you want to hit people, that’s fine, but for that pre-testosterone group, that pre-puberty group, this is just putting kids in costumes. This is entertainment for the parents.”
On that same radio program on Monday, Ron White of the California Youth Football Alliance implored California State Assemblymembers to vote down the bill.
“This is one of the most misguided, out-of-touch pieces of legislation we’ve seen,” White told Gonzalez. “This is what appears to be a crusade by a single man to try to put an end to an amazing sport for youth athletes. If you follow the science, (McCarty’s claims) just don’t add up. At its best, it’s anecdotal, and it becomes (McCarty’s) crusade.”