By Daniel Jackovino and Joe Ragozzino
A bill that would ban children below the age of 12 from playing organized tackle football has been introduced in the NJ Legislature. The sponsor of the bill, A3760, is Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-37th District.
The bill was introduced Thursday, April 5. In its statement, it prohibits youth sports teams from allowing children under 12 from participating in any practice or game of “American football where physical force is used to force opposing players to the ground.” School districts would prohibit these children from participate in tackle football in any athletic or physical education program.
According to the statement, athletes who begin playing contact sports early in life are at greater risk of having neurological impairment as they age. The impairment may include chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease, which is caused by repeated head trauma. The statement states that studies support that people who play tackle football before the age of 12 are at greater risk than those not playing until they are at least 12 years.
Huttle did not return requests to her office for an interview. However, a number of local football coaches and administrators were willing to speak on the topic.
James Vigna, a Glen Ridge coach at the junior league level, said in a telephone interview he did not think government should get involved in this. Football, he said, is being used as a scapegoat for the concussion issue.
“I coach fifth- and sixth-graders,” Vigna said. “There was not one concussion last year. We had 12 games. One child missed a game with a toe injury. The statistics people are looking at are at the professional level where the players are bigger, faster and stronger.”
But even the NFL is becoming safety-conscious, he said. The professional teams now have a program called “Heads Up.” If a player’s head is in the play, it is only by mistake.
“That has contributed a lot to safety,” he said. “It’s a much different environment now. The benefits of playing football far outweighs the drawbacks.”
Vigna has been coaching for eight years. He said he has seen a lot of data which tells him that football can be played safely. His team experienced no concussions during the past season and the number of concussions while he has been coaching could be counted on one hand, he said.
“There was one kid who got a concussion in wrestling,” he said. “He wasn’t the biggest kid. He stopped playing football.”
James McDaniels, president of the William Foley Football League, a Bloomfield youth league, said in a telephone interview that it was unfair that tackle football is always under attack because of concussions.
“Kids are taught to keep their heads out of the game,” he said. “Tackling techniques have changed. In Bloomfield, we used rugby-style tackling for the last two years.”
McDaniel said when he played football, he was taught to “bite the ball.” This meant trying to hit the ball with your helmet as it was being carried by an opposing runner.
“The ball is on the other side of the runner’s body,” McDaniels said. “You go for it, but you can cause a fumble. Now we go for the near hip. You attack the near hip. Attacking the near hip takes the head out of the play. If a ref sees a kid is using his head, he can get removed from the game.”
McDaniels said over the last seven years, while he has been league president, there have been some concussions.
“Our numbers are down the last several years because we’ve adapted to the game,” he said. “Kids get more concussions from skateboards. Football is the greatest character builder of all sports. It’s a shame it’s under attack by people who never played it.”
Mike Carter, football coach of the Bloomfield High School varsity team, said in a telephone interview he did not necessarily agree with Huttle’s bill.
“It’s a complicated question,” he said. “If you look at the numbers, the other sports have high numbers, too. What we are seeing is a concentrated effort for safety in all games, not just football. There is a huge emphasis on new tackling techniques in football.”
Carter said the BHS players use Guardian Caps. This is a cushion that is worn outside the helmet to help absorb impact to the helmet.
“It reduces impact,” he said. “It helps reduce what’s going on. They are coming up with some form of it for rugby and soccer. The emphasis is teaching safety in the sport. Everybody is hoping for an answer. It’s not isolated to football. We do a very good job with our kids and we follow the exact protocol.”
Players and coaches understand now that leading or hitting with the helmet will not be tolerated, Carter said. The national governing body of the sport, USA Football, has made player safety a priority, he said.
“They’ve done a really good job across the board,” Carter said. “They’ve made an adjustment on tackling a few years back. I think the tackling is better now.”
In a telephone interview, Joe Piro, athletic director at Nutley High School, said he fully supports Huttle’s bill. Piro also serves as the president of the North Jersey Super Football Conference, which involves 112 high schools from Bergen, Passaic, Essex, Morris, Hudson, Sussex and Warren counties.
“I think it’s a great idea,” he said. “With tackle football, we’re starting them too young. Most times, the equipment doesn’t fit them properly. When we get them to the high school level, we want them to know how to throw, how to catch, to understand the basics of the game, and you can do that through the youth level through the flag football program.
“By the time they get to the sixth, seventh or eighth grade, and you want to start teaching them how to play contact football, that’s a whole different story. Anything lower, fifth or sixth grade, third or fourth grade, second and third grade, is absolutely not necessary.”