Never underestimate the power of a dead-end idea to get people riled up.
First came the proposal to ban children 10 and under from playing tackle football in leagues. Then came the backlash from local politicians promising to fight against the idea of a prohibition.
Never mind that the proposed law doesn’t seem to be gaining much yardage. Only the man who filed the bill, Bronx Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, has signed his name to the idea.
But football is hot. Concussions are on people’s minds, and maybe it’s not so bad if a few parents think twice about the safety of their tiny tykes on the field.
Banning young children from playing organized tackle football seems about as useful as stopping kids from riding bicycles or taking down all the playgrounds.
Riding a bike, after all, includes some pretty serious hazards, and head injuries, according to the state Department of Health, are the leading cause of death and disability in bicycle crashes. But we don’t outlaw children from riding a bike simply because it comes with risk.
What the state does, by law, is require kids to wear helmets. Parents, we hope, teach them to look both ways and to take care in traffic. And if they don’t think it’s safe, then every parent has the choice to keep them off the road.
Pint-sized football players already wear helmets, but there’s plenty more that could be done to ensure coaches are trained in proper practice techniques and know how to identify concussions. Last year, a new state law took effect that requires public school coaches be trained in brain injuries and the importance of treatment. It also requires athletes suspected of having suffered a concussion to be removed from the game and cleared by a doctor.
But the new rules apply only to school programs, leaving leagues free to go by their own rules.
Scientists have just begun to study how vulnerable children are to head injuries in tackle football. Researchers at Virginia Tech put sensors in the helmets of 7- and 8-year olds for a season to measure how hard they were hit. The study, published last year, found that some hits in practice had the same force as “the more severe impacts that college players experience.”
That’s pretty scary stuff for any parent watching on the sidelines.
The study involved only seven players, but the results were enough to persuade the Pop Warner football league to update its rules to limit contact drills in practice. This is the way safer football is going to come – with more research, better information and improved training; not with half-baked laws to prevent kids from tackling.
And if the sport is truly going to change, it’s got to start at the top. The National Football League for years has glorified brutal hits on the field and now faces lawsuits from players who claim they weren’t given enough information about concussions. Pro players get paid quite nicely and ought to know the risks, but the NFL sets the standards to which little boys aspire.
Until the league truly embraces safety, the attitudes aren’t going to change for those kids hoping to one day play at the highest level.
No amount of laws will keep kids entirely out of harm, but there are smart ways to write laws to keep kids playing safer. Banning kids from the game isn’t one of them.