February 23, 2024

Gov. Gavin Newsom pledged Wednesday to hold the line against a proposed law that would ban youth tackle football in California, saying in a statement to The Times that he’d veto any such legislation.

Assembly Bill 734 was introduced last year by state Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) and cleared its first hurdle a week ago when a legislative committee voted 5 to 2 along party lines for the measure to be considered by the 80-member Assembly.

Originally written to prohibit children under age 12 from playing tackle football, the bill was amended in committee to ban the sport for children 5 or younger beginning in 2025. In 2027, the bill would raise the age on the ban to 9, and in 2029 it would go to 11.

California’s Democratic governor, however, wants no part of a bill that would dictate to parents the age they can allow their children to participate in a sport.

“I will not sign legislation that bans youth tackle football,” Newsom said in the statement. “I am deeply concerned about the health and safety of our young athletes, but an outright ban is not the answer.

“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.”

Studies of the effects of blows to the head from playing tackle football are mixed. A 2016 study published by the Radiological Society of North America found that a single season of tackle football can affect the brains of players as young as 8. Researchers concluded that even hits that did not lead to a diagnosed concussion produced adverse effects.

The degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is tied to concussions and brain trauma but cannot be diagnosed until a person is deceased and their brain can be studied. Boston University researchers found that among 211 football players diagnosed with CTE after death, those who began tackle football before age 12 had an earlier onset of cognitive, behavior, and mood symptoms by an average of 13 years.

Every one year younger that the individuals began to play tackle football predicted an earlier onset of cognitive problems by 2.4 years and behavioral and mood problems by 2½ years, researchers found.

“Youth exposure to repetitive head impacts in tackle football may reduce one’s resiliency to brain diseases later in life, including, but not limited to CTE,” said Ann McKee, director of the Boston University CTE Center. “It makes common sense that children, whose brains are rapidly developing, should not be hitting their heads hundreds of times per season.”

However, a 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. that tracked tackle football players ages 9 to 12 over four seasons found that repeated blows to the head were not associated with cognitive or behavioral problems. Neurocognitive performance instead is tied to medical diagnoses such as anxiety, depression and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

No state has banned tackle football for kids, but there have been attempts to do so. Similar bills introduced previously in California, New York, Illinois, Massachusetts and Maryland failed to pass.

McCarty’s proposed law comes on the heels of the 2021 California Youth Football Act (CYFA), which requires tackle football coaches to complete concussion and head-injury education and for parents of young participants to receive similar information. The act also requires youth tackle football leagues to assist in tracking youth sports injuries.

Opponents of the proposed law say that it is premature, that implementing and studying the effectiveness of the CYFA needs time. Newsom seemed to side with that point of view in his statement.

“California remains committed to building on the California Youth Football Act, which I signed in 2019, establishing advanced safety standards for youth football,” he said. “This law provides a comprehensive safety framework for young athletes, including equipment standards and restrictions on exposure to full-contact tackles.”

Proponents of tackle football along with groups that advocate for less government intrusion have been vociferous in their objection to the proposed law. The California Youth Football Alliance posted on Facebook to “Huddle up California,” urging members to “protect parental rights, stand up to big government, and separate fact from fiction.”

In a 2023 Washington Post poll of 1,006 adults, 75% of those who identified as conservatives said they would recommend youth or high school football to kids compared with only 44% of liberals. This was a change from a 2012 Post poll in which the conservative-liberal gap was only 70% to 63%.

McCarty said keeping children from playing tackle football until they reach adolescence is simply common sense.

“There are other alternatives for young kids, other sports, other football activities like flag football — which the NFL is heavily investing in,” he said. “There is a way to love football and protect our kids. 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.”

Still, Newsom would have veto power even if the bill made it through the full Assembly and Senate, and he made it clear he’d use it.

“We will consult with health and sports medicine experts, coaches, parents, and community members to ensure California maintains the highest standards in the country for youth football safety,” he said in his statement. “We owe that to the legions of families in California who have embraced youth sports.”

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