Children play in the Orange County Youth Football League Superbowl in Newburgh, New York, on Nov. 21, 2015. (Courtesy of Rob Waligroski)
SACRAMENTO, Calif.—More than 100 parents, coaches, young football players, and opponents of legislation intended to ban tackle football for children under the age of 12 showed up at the Capitol on Jan. 10 to attend a hearing to discuss the issue.
Most were forced to wait in the hallway watching the meeting on a screen outside room 127 where the Assembly’s Arts, Entertainment, Sports, and Tourism Committee discussed Assembly Bill 734—introduced by Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) to protect children from brain injury by prohibiting youth tackle football.
The measure’s author argues that helmets are incapable of protecting brains from traumatic injuries during hard tackles.
“Just like bumpers don’t solve problems with car collisions, the helmets solve issues with skulls cracking, but what about what’s in the skull?” Mr. McCarty asked during his opening statements to the committee.
He then used a San Francisco Giants water bottle to demonstrate ice and water hitting its sides to emulate potential brain injuries.
Another prop that Mr. McCarty had on his table, a San Francisco 49ers football, was meant to show his love for the game and the team, he said.
Citing studies published over the last five years, including those from Boston University and the Centers for Disease Control, the assemblyman said scientific evidence suggests that earlier exposure to tackle football can lead to higher incidence of brain injury.
Arguing in the committee’s legislative analyses published Jan. 8 that football results in the highest incidence of brain injury compared with other sports, a sponsor of the bill said the risk to children during developmental stages is particularly concerning.
“This bill protects a child’s critically developing brain, helping to ensure healthful passage into puberty and adolescence, a pivotal phase in their psychosocial development,” wrote the California Neurology Society—an organization of health professionals focused on brain science advocacy and education. “Early childhood brain development lays a critical foundation for long-term cognitive and mental health outcomes.”
Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), author of AB 734 (C), seen with props including a water bottle and football used during opening remarks at a hearing in Sacramento, Calif., on Jan. 10, 2024. (Travis Gillmore/The Epoch Times)
Lawmakers discussed the suicide deaths of some National Football League stars—including San Diego Chargers Hall of Famer Junior Seau, who requested his brain be studied to determine the cause of his mental health issues. Such instances point to a need to change the nature of the game for early participants to protect children, Mr. McCarty said.
Acknowledging the frustration felt by some parents that suggested the matter should be one of personal choice, the assemblyman said government regulations are needed, at times.
“This is a tough choice telling parents what they can and can’t do,” he said during the hearing. “But every once in a while, the government steps up and says, ‘You know what, kids shouldn’t smoke, kids shouldn’t have a firearm, kids should wear seatbelts.’”
Another assemblyman said the issue is especially challenging for him because his history as a football player and coach allows him to weigh both sides of the debate—including the benefits of team sports and the downside of potential injuries.
“I’m torn on this particular issue,” Assemblyman Avelino Valencia (D-Anaheim) said during the meeting. “It’s a very dangerous and violent sport.”
Some critics said the positives related to the sport—including camaraderie, structure, and life lessons—outweigh the risks.
“The confidence, mental well-being, and life skills fostered through this sport, particularly in underserved communities, are immeasurable,” Sacramento Sheriff Jim Cooper testified in opposition to the bill. “For some kids, youth tackle football is their only structure.”
Highlighting the loss of mentorship that could occur if the sport is banned for youth, one assemblyman agreed with Mr. Cooper while voicing opposition to the proposal.
Ron White, president of the California Youth Football Alliance (Front L) and Sacramento Sheriff Jim Cooper (Front C) testify in opposition to AB 734 in Sacramento, Calif., on Jan. 10, 2024. (Travis Gillmore/The Epoch Times)
“What we’re doing here is robbing youth of way more than risk,” Assemblyman Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale) said, before voting against the bill. “And for that reason, I cannot support this measure.”
Disputing such claims, the chair of the committee suggested that similar benefits can be achieved by playing flag football.
“This bill is not taking away that ability,” Assemblyman Mike Gipson (D-Carson) said during the hearing. “We can have the same learning experience and safe places that we have today.”
Another committee member suggested the bill unfairly focuses on only one sport, while acknowledging the concerns of supporters.
“Clearly, there’s merits to both sides of this debate,” Assemblyman Greg Wallis (R-Bermuda Dunes) said. “We should continue to be vigilant on issues about youth safety without singling out just one activity.”
Dozens of opposition voices rose to speak during the public comment portion of the hearing, with many parents, coaches, representatives from leagues across the state, and players filing in from the hallway to participate.
Some parents told The Epoch Times they brought their children as a lesson in civics and an opportunity to learn firsthand about the Legislature and the process by which proposals are considered and adopted.
One family in attendance expressed concern that the bill goes too far, saying the effects could be far-reaching and detrimental to communities most in need of opportunities.
“I understand their concern, but I believe this piece of legislation sets a dangerous precedent for banning youth sports in the midst of an obesity and sedentary crisis for children,” Erica Tyler, a college professor and epidemiologist who attended the hearing with one of her young football playing sons, told The Epoch Times. “I think it will also have an outsized impact on communities of color.”
Coach David Hollar (R) and members of the Jr. Lincoln Zebra football team attended a hearing to speak out in opposition to a bill that would ban tackle football programs for youth under the age of 12, in Sacramento on Jan. 10, 2024. (Travis Gillmore/The Epoch Times)
“They’re trying to regulate a sport that’s been made safer by coaches and training,” said youth football coach David Hollar from Lincoln, in Northern California, who attended the meeting with several elementary school-aged players. “This shouldn’t be regulated by the government; it should be the parents’ discretion.”
While Mr. McCarty says he understands the concerns voiced by dissenters, he said protecting young brains is more important than the sport.
“You can love football and our kids and try to protect our kids,” he said. “Kids under 18 are 50 percent of the present but 100 percent of the future.”
After clearing the committee on a 5–2 vote, the measure is now slated for discussion and debate on the Assembly floor in the coming weeks.