Newsom sacks bill banning youth tackle football

Governor intercepts AB 734, which would have made it illegal for children 12 and younger to play tackle football; Local youth leagues speak out against the bill

(Ernest Prim on AdobeStock)
Darren Fraser
Published January 18, 2024  • 
3:00 pm

TULARE COUNTY – To the relief of local youth football leagues, Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced that he would veto a bill tackling its way through the California Assembly, which would have kept children 12 and younger from grappling with the gridiron.

The bill in question, Assembly Bill (AB) 734, was introduced by Assemblymember Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) on Feb. 13, 2023. It was referred to the Assembly Arts, Entertainment, Sports and Tourism Committee (Committee) on Feb. 23, where it stayed until Jan. 10, 2024. McCarty sits on the Committee.

However, on Jan. 17, Newsom’s office said the governor would veto any bill that bans youth tackle football.

“My Administration will work with the Legislature and the bill’s author to strengthen safety in youth football – while ensuring parents have the freedom to decide which sports are most appropriate for their children,” Newsom said in a statement.

Had it passed, AB 734 would have phased out age groups from playing tackle football. According to the bill, effective Jan. 1, 2025, children 6 and younger would be prohibited from playing. Effective Jan. 1, 2027, children 10 and younger would not be permitted to play. Beginning Jan. 1, 2029, children 12 and younger.

The news of this latest announcement from the Governor could be seen as a welcome relief to some local leagues, who were not in favor of the bill. The Dinuba Youth Football League (Dinuba) was against AB 734. Following Newsom’s announcement, the League reposted a post from the All Valley Youth Football League, to which Dinuba belongs. 

The post read, “AB 734 has been stopped, we at All Valley would like to thank the parents and players for their support to oppose the bill.”

For League president and coach, Harvey Moreno, who has been involved in youth sports for over 20 years, the issue came down to parents’ choice.

“The government should not have a say in this,” said Moreno. “This is about parents deciding.”

Morena said he understands the reasoning behind the bill. But he said there is more than just kids playing tackle football at stake.

“A lot of kids get lost in the system,” Moreno said. “Playing football instills teamwork and builds camaraderie. It makes the kids better people.”

Moreno said the League has been in existence for 50 years. There are 150 players. Kids must be 7 and older to play tackle football. Morena said the League also sponsors flag football for children 4 to 5.

WRAP THEM IN BUBBLE WRAP

Tyler Baker has coached football for Exeter Youth Football for three years. Exeter, too, is part of the All Valley Football League. Exeter has players from kindergarten age through 8th grade.

Baker opposed AB 734 for a number of reasons. One of those reasons had to do with preparation. He said today’s football is not the football he played as a kid.

“The one thing you have to realize is today’s tackle football is not the same tackle football as when I was a kid,” said Baker. “When I was a kid, day one in ‘Hell week,’ we got out pads. We’re putting our pads on and we took off for conditioning. If you didn’t have half your team puking, you didn’t do it right.”

The difference, Baker said, is conditioning and preparation. His players practice for at least 20 hours before they get helmets; they practice 10 hours before they get pads. Each player must have a medical physical before they are allowed to play. They learn how to tackle, how to hit and even how to fall.

“Those kids who know how to fall are the ones who don’t get hurt,” Baker said.

Another reason why Baker said he opposed the bill is he considered it government overreach.

“It’s a great idea that they’re trying to protect kids,” Baker said of McCarty and the Committee. “I have three kids of my own. What are you going to do? Wrap them in bubble wrap and make them sit in front of the Xbox all day and not go anywhere? Because that’s the only guaranteed way they’re not going to get hurt.

“My kids have gotten hurt worse wrestling in the living room than they have on the playing field.”

THERE IS NO SAFE BLOW TO THE HEAD

For McCarty’s side of the playing field in drafting AB 734, he made a point that there are other alternatives for young kids.

“(There are) other sports, other football activities like flag football, which the NFL is heavily investing in,” McCarty said. “There is a way to love football and love our kids.”

He added, “We’ve come to realize that there is no real safe way to play youth tackle football. There is no safe blow to the head for 6, 7, and 8-year-olds and they should not be experiencing hundreds of sub-concussive hits to the head on an annual basis when there is an alternative.”

In a Jan. 12 press release announcing that AB 734 had passed the Committee, McCarty’s office said, “Children who play tackle football during critical years of brain development are at a greater risk for neurological impairment and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) later in life. Children’s brains are especially vulnerable between the ages of 6-14 undergoing dramatic change and maturation.”

CTE was first diagnosed by Dr. Bennet Omalu after he performed an examination on former Pittsburgh Steelers center, Mike Webster, in 2002. CTE can only be diagnosed post-mortem. Omalu found that Webster’s brain showed significant trauma. He concluded the trauma was the result of repeated helmet-to-helmet contact Webster sustained during his 16-year career.

In 2023, researchers at the Boston University CTE Center announced they diagnosed CTE in the brains of 345 of 376 NFL players. By comparison, another study conducted by the University found that of the 165 brains donated for the study, only one had CTE – which came from a former college football player.

Research data gathered from these and other studies suggests CTE symptoms get worse over time, not unlike Alzheimer’s and dementia. Individuals with CTE have difficulty thinking, impulsive behavior, suicidal thoughts and behavior, depression, apathy, and short-term memory loss.

In October 2023, the Committee held an informational hearing on youth tackle football and improving athletic safety.

Dr. Stella Legarda, a pediatric neurologist, clinical neurophysiologist, epilepsy specialist, and the current president of the California Neurology Society gave a presentation to the Committee about the effects of long-term helmet-to-helmet contact. Legarda quoted a research study of 212 former football players. The study found that players who began playing tackle football before age 12 had more than two times the probability for impairments in behavior regulation and apathy. These individuals had more than three times the probability for elevated depression scores.

“While the medical data seems complex,” said Legarda, “study results are convincingly clear the medical and scientific communities unanimously agree that repetitive head impacts, regardless of the impact severity, lay the foundation for brain injury.” 

Assemblymember Avelino Valencia, D-Anaheim, who is a former high school, collegiate, and professional football player, voted in favor of the bill. He said he agreed with the methodology.

“It’s the best approach to ensure that young individuals in California have a chance to play at the high school level and not have their careers cut short,” Valencia said.

Darren Fraser
Reporter