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State legislation could end youth tackle football

Peabody and Salem youth football players going head to head.
Peabody and Salem youth football players going head to head. (Courtesy of Peabody Youth Football & Cheer)

If two Beacon Hill lawmakers get their way, elementary school athletes will have to find an alternative to tackle football. But opponents are pushing back, saying the measure is misguided.

House Minority Leader Bradley Jones Jr. (R-North Reading) and Rep. Paul Schmid III (D-Westport) have proposed No Organized Head Impacts to Schoolchildren or the NO HITS Act. The controversial measure would limit the contact sport to eighth-graders and older.

If enacted, tens of thousands of youthful football players would be sidelined across the state. But advocates say children as young as 9 years old average 251 head impacts a season. It’s time, they say, to outlaw tackling.

Proponents say there’s substantial evidence that shows repeated head trauma can cause serious complications for a child’s developing brain.

Children who started tackle football before age 12 were more likely to have degenerative brain disease and Alzheimer’s disease at younger ages, according to an American Neurological Association study.

But athletic program directors say the legislation goes too far.

“Football directors and coaches understand why they are proposing something like this, we just think it’s an awful overreach,” said Steven Connolly, president of Lynnfield Pioneer Youth Football & Cheer.

Today’s youth football is different from a decade ago, he said. For example, coaches are required to be Heads Up Football-certified. The program by USA Football, the national governing body for amateur players, is designed to advance safety.

In addition, rushing the punter, and blocking and tackling leading with the head, is prohibited; helmet technology has improved and an EMT is at every game, he said.

“Head injuries in football games are on the decline, while we are still seeing sprained ankles and wrists,” Connolly said. “If this is approved, there will be 160 kids in Lynnfield looking for something to do.”

Brian Lozzi, former president of the Lynn Chargers Youth Football and Cheering Association, said the number of people organizing to defeat the bill is overwhelming. A team is being gathered comprising of one person from every league statewide, or more than 200 activists.

“This is being proposed by a small group of misinformed people who are taking what they see and read on social media and going to bat for their cause,” he said. “Safety is worth discussing, but shutting football down for anyone under the eighth grade is not the answer.”

Peabody mother Stephanie Mastrocola has two boys who play football, a 13-year-old eighth-grader who plans to join the high school team and a 12-year-old who will be a Gladiator next fall. She is against banning tackle football.

“Why are they singling out football?” she said. “My kids have gotten concussions on the playground. Let parents, not the state, make these decisions for our children.”

William Woods, president of Peabody Youth Football & Cheer, said he is opposed to the measure.

“I’m sure there will be lots of debate,” he said. “But today’s game considerably limits not only head injuries, but injuries as a whole. If it passes, 150 kids in Peabody won’t be able to play.” Rule changes have eliminated cut blocking, the dangerous practice of going after a player’s legs, Woods said. The use of tackling wheels during practice helps players learn the safe way to tackle and limit collisions during practice, he said.

Still, contained in the proponent’s materials is a comment from Biff Poggi, head football coach at St. Frances Academy, a predominantly African-American Catholic high school in East Baltimore. He’s not sure a child can be taught the appropriate way to block and tackle.

“They’re not ready physically or emotionally,” he said. “We don’t let kids drive before the age of 16 for a reason. There ought to be really thoughtful legislation around the game of football. The consequences are too severe.”

While the legislation has support from the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts, the Concussion Legacy Foundation, and former New England Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, a three-time Super Bowl winner with Tom Brady, one lawmaker has withdrawn his endorsement.

State Rep. Donald Wong, a Saugus Republican, originally one of 17 co-sponsors, has asked his name be removed.

“First, I heard from constituents who asked me to sign on because everyone wants to stop concussions,” he said. “But once I did, I got phone calls, emails and text messages from other constituents who asked me to sign off.”

Officials from Saugus Pop Warner called Wong to say their coaches instruct the young players on how to avoid head contact, he said.

For example, he said, the youthful linemen and running backs avoid the three-point stance. Used at the start of a play, it requires one hand to touch the ground while the other arm is cocked back to the hip. As a result, it’s almost impossible to avoid helmet-to-helmet contact.

There seems to be diversity of opinion when it comes to the topic among football legends and the NFL.

Former NFL coach John Madden has said 6,- 7,- and 8-year-old kids should not be learning tackling drills.

“They’re not ready for it,” he said during a round-table discussion on an NFL Network series. “They can play flag football. And with flag football you can get all the techniques. Why do we have to start with a 6-year-old who was just potty trained a year ago and put a helmet on him and tackle?”

But NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell offered a different point of view.

“I started playing tackle football when I was 7, and I wouldn’t give up a single day of that,” he said.

Jones, whose district includes parts of Lynnfield, declined multiple requests for an interview.

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