Should the State of Illinois control when children can play tackle football? It will if State Rep. Carol Sente gets her way.
The Vernon Hills Democrat recently proposed a state law which would ban children younger than the age of 12 from participating in full-contact football.
Sente presented the Dave Duerson Act, which was named for the former Chicago Bears safety, who committed suicide in 2011. After his death, Duerson was diagnosed as having chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease.
“We elect people to government, and they feel a responsibility to fix problems, and right now football has a problem,” said Marion High School football coach Kerry Martin. “Is it as bad as some people think, is it worse? I don’t know the answer to that. At the end of my career here, this is a new thing. This head injury problem has become a big deal.
"I understand their motivation to try to make a difference. Most of the time, laws are passed for people who do the worst job at something. A lot of stuff like this is aimed at coaches who maybe aren’t doing the best job of taking care of their kids.”
Plenty of other former professional football players have been diagnosed with CTE or something similar, primarily because of head trauma from many years of competing in the violent sport.
“Parents are raising kids now in the age of the concussion,” Martin said. “Twenty years ago, that wasn’t the case. There is such a dialogue about it now, and I know parents have a lot of concerns. If something like this proposal helps ease those fears and keeps kids playing football of some type, then that’s going to be a good thing for us. The numbers are going down for participation. But I’m not sure the numbers are down just because of concussions, although that is an easy thing to assume. I think football is a very tough sport, and I believe there are fewer and fewer tough kids that are willing to endure what you have to go through to play football.”
But should it require a state law to force something that many people believe should be up to the parents of these young athletes?
“I have opinions both ways on this,” said Anna-Jonesboro coach Brett Detering. “I understand the intent of it is that by limiting contact at an early age when the brain is at a developmental stage, it might help with young kids. I certainly would never argue with safety because it’s one of the most important things for our game. If we’re doing everything we can to keep our kids safe, I think that’s in the best interest of the long-term survival of our game.”
It’s no secret that numbers have been going down for a number of years as far as participation in high school football.
“I don’t necessarily have an issue with them tackling or not tackling before the age of 12, and I would rather we make sure youth football coaches have to have some sort of certification if we’re going to legislate things,” Detering said. “We do that in high school. Programs can be developed where coaches are required to have some sort of certification. My biggest complaint of youth sports across the board, and not just football, is I would hate for a kid to have a negative experience that would prevent them from playing that sport at a later time in their life.”
But there are measures that have been taken over the years to make the game safer.
“At Marion, we hit far less than we used to, and we’re buying much better helmets, and we’re wearing other things on our head to protect us,” Martin said. “We’ve taken contact out of numerous drills. We are making an attempt to hit less at the high school level. I think a lot of really good coaches are already taking a lot of steps to take the hitting out of football where they can. I don’t know whether this proposal will help or not.”
Johnston City coach Dan Mings began playing tackle football at the age of 8. Mings said he let his son play tackle football as soon as he felt like he was ready.
“I obviously don’t think politicians should be involved, and they should probably be working on some other things,” Mings said. “There are more pressing and important things in this state.”
Mings thinks decisions like these should be left up to parents. In a social media poll posted by The Southern, the decision was split almost even according to more than 400 people who voted.
“Football is in our fabric,” Mings said. “Sure, maybe some little kids aren’t developed as much early. But I think this is making a mountain out of a molehill. But with all the concussion scares and all the press it gets, it is a serious thing and should be taken seriously. I think parents will make the right decisions for their own kids.”
Martin, who said he isn’t necessarily for or against this proposal, said that today’s game features better and safer helmets, more trainers, and less of a desire to rush kids back from injuries too soon.
“My biggest concern is those younger kids whose parents are raising them in this concussion era,” Martin said. “Maybe something like this proposal will help keep those kids involved in some kind of football until we can get them to the junior high level and start putting pads on.”
Additional safety measures have been taken in numerous youth sports, including soccer and hockey, among others.
“Facemasks on batters in girls softball became a thing, and there was some pushback on it for various reasons,” Detering said. “Now, it has become second nature. Kids wear them all the time. Infielders wear protective gear on their faces. As far as football, I think we would adapt as a society and be fine. That’s just my opinion.”
Detering believes that most injuries in youth football don’t necessarily come from helmet-to-helmet collisions, but rather from a kid’s helmet hitting the ground hard after contact.
Mings agreed with Detering that youth football coaches should have to attain some kind of certification like coaches at the high school level do.
“I don’t have a rhyme or a reason to say when they should be able to start playing tackle football,” Mings said. “But then again, I think football should be a school sport. I think it should be regulated by an association. I think coaches should be hired and responsible for doing things the right way. That’s not to say that all the JFL coaches don’t work their tails off or do a good job. I would just like to see youth football in a more regulated type of setting.”
Martin didn’t play tackle football until he was in seventh grade. Although the safety of the players comes first, he just hopes the game of football survives the modern era.
“In some parts of the country, you’ll see 5- and 6-year-olds running around with helmets on, but not so much around here,” Martin said. “But do I have a concern about the future of football? Absolutely, I do. Every coach I talk to has a concern. Technology is getting better and coaches are practicing smarter. I think somewhere a combination of all of the above is probably going to be the best answer. Hopefully, we can keep it going and keep football strong.”