Proposal to ban youth tackle football highlights risk of brain injury

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DANE COUNTY, Wis. (WMTV) -- Citing long-term health risk, an Illinois lawmaker has proposed a state ban on tackle football for children younger than 12 years old.

Illinois State Rep. Carol Sente, a Democrat from Vernon Hills, says science shows that "the risks of playing football before turning 12 just aren't worth it."

"We now know with certainty that part of the solution is to guard young children's brains from the dangers of tackle football," Tregg Duerson said.

Tregg Duerson is the son of Dave Duerson, who was starting safety of the 1985 Chicago Bears Super Bowl champion team. Dave Duerson took his own life at age 50. He was later found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. CTE is a brain disease that has been linked to hits to the head from events such as tackling in football. His son spoke in favor of the Dave Duerson act, the proposal that was introduced in Illinois a little over a week ago.

With hundreds of youth football players in Dane County, similar concerns for concussion safety exist for youth athletes in Wisconsin who participate in tackle football, but no similar ban has been proposed.

"Right now is probably the safest time to be playing youth football," Sun Prairie Youth Football President Tony Walton said. Walton has been involved in youth football for 13 years. He says he has seen how rules and priorities in the sport have changed to highlight player safety.

"We coach safe tackling techniques and we do drills in practice that minimize contact," Walton said. "There’s a technique called hawk tackling where our goal is to take the players head out of the way of impact."

Walton says he believes learning these techniques at an early age can get players into safer habits when they play at higher levels. As a parent, he says he understands why some people share the concerns of our neighboring state.

"My initial reaction to it was, we’ve got more legislation around things that maybe should be a parental decision," Walton said.

"There's still data to be gathered," Sports Medicine Physician Dr. Brian Reeder said. Dr. Reeder at SSM Health also volunteers as a team physician for the Sun Prairie High School football team.

"The younger the athlete, their brain is still developing," Dr. Reeder said. "And so the idea is that while their brain is still in a developmental phase, if we have an injury to that, there’s more to catch up to."

While helmet technology and tackling techniques may have made the game safer than it used to be, Dr. Reeder says no matter the age, there's no safe way to take a hit to the head.

"For a long time the belief was that little kids can’t get the velocity up to hit hard enough," Dr. Reeder said. "I don’t know that that statement is really true."

Walton says among 200 youth football players, he rarely sees more than 3 reported concussions in a season.

Dr. Reeder says regulation is logical.

"It makes sense that if you’re not colliding, there’s a lower chance of injury," Dr. Reeder said.

However, Walton says a ban is just not practical.

"You can’t put a regulation on whether kids play tackle football," Walton said. "They’re going to continue to do it. They’re going to do it in the backyard in an uncontrolled environment where they may not be safe."

While CTE research has been conducted on former NFL players posthumously, there has been no proven correlation between CTE and playing tackle football at an early age. Most concussion studies do not include data on children under 12.

The possible affect of CTE and concussion research extends beyond the debate of youth tackle football in Illinois. NBC News reports the number of people following the NFL closely and the number who want their children to play football is declining.

The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found the number of people who say they follow the NFL has declined sharply since 2014. In January, 49 percent of those polled said they follow the league closely. In January of 2014, the “follow closely” figure was 58 percent. That’s a 9-point drop. You can read that report here-

In 2012 Wisconsin lawmakers enacted Act 172. Wisconsin Act 172 directs the Department of Public Instruction and the WIAA to distribute information and guidelines to educate coaches, athletes and their parents about the risk of concussion and head
injury in youth sports like football, hockey and gymnastics.