ALBANY — Citing growing medical evidence linking head injuries to brain disease, several New York lawmakers have kicked off an effort to prohibit children ages 12 and under from playing tackle football.
The proposed ban would extend to not only school-sponsored football programs but also Pop Warner and youth leagues that require parental consent for children to join teams.
At a legislative hearing Tuesday, Chris Nowinski, co-founder of the Boston-based Concussion Legacy Foundation and an expert on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), contended prevention is now "the only tool" to curb traumatic head injuries in tackle football.
Nowinski, a former All-Ivy League football player at Harvard University, said evidence connecting tackle football to brain damage is "even stronger" than the link between smoking and lung cancer, yet the "same negligence and reluctance to recognize a major health danger is happening with CTE."
"If we ban youth tackle football, we can save lives," Nowinski said.
But Robert Zayas, director of the New York State Public High School Athletics Association, said participation in football and other sports offers "countless benefits" to children. He said many safeguards have been enacted in recent years to reduce the chances of injury.
These include the "Tommy Tough Standards" that limit the amount of time children are allowed to play tackle football each week and requirements that players who engage in "head to head" contact be immediately taken out of the game, Zayas said.
Zayas also questioned why there has been so much focus on injuries from youth football participation, noting risks of physical harm are also associated with many other sports.
"Through the rule-writing process, equipment development and coach education, the risk of injury is certainly minimized," Zayas said.
The prime sponsor of the New York legislation, Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, was unconvinced by those arguments, however.
"The object (in football) is to violently hit the other player and to bring the opponent violently to the ground," Benedetto said.
The influential chairman of the Assembly Health Committee, Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, came out in strong support of the legislation. He disagreed with suggestions from defenders of youth football that the risk of injuries has been adequately addressed.
"Should 12-year-olds who have taken driver's education be allowed to drive cars that have become safer than they've ever been?" Gottfried asked rhetorically.
Gottfried later told CNHI that the legislation to ban tackle football programs for children less than 13 years old appears to be gathering steam in the Assembly but its fate in the state Senate remains unknown.
He likened the defenders of allowing children to continue to play tackle football to tobacco industry lobbyists who scoffed at reports of a link between cigarettes and cancer.
Gottfried said he was also impressed by scientific information suggesting improvements in helmet technology still leave children vulnerable to concussions, noting better headgear may shield youth from pain in a way that creates a false impression no brain damage resulted.
Defenders of youth football programs warned that children will end up playing unsupervised tackle games if New York bars the activity, thus elevating the risk of injury.
Proposals to ban youth tackle football have also been advanced in statehouses in Massachusetts, California, New Jersey, Maryland and Illinois.
Tuesday's hearing in New York came three weeks after the Boston University School of Medicine published a study that concluded a person's risk of developing CTE, a devastating neurodegenerative disease, increases by 30 percent for every year of absorbing the repeated head collisions that result from playing tackle football.
The researchers said the conclusions were drawn from an analysis of 266 deceased former amateur and professional football players.
Nowinski said players on youth football teams often experience hundreds of hits to the head in each season of play.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org